Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nothing if Not Obsessed: The Prints of Frank Stella

"Making art is complicated because the categories are always changing. You just have to make your own art, and whatever categories it falls into will come later." - Frank Stella
The renowned American painter/printmaker, Frank Stella, was born in in 1936, in Malden, Massachusetts. After he graduated from  Princeton University in 1958 with a degree in History, Stella moved to New York City and eventually set up a studio in Manhattan. He was deeply influenced by the Abstract Expressionism movement and particularly liked the work of painters Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. He looked at the flat, single band of color of Barnet Newman’s enormous paintings and also responded to Jasper Johns’ ‘Target’ mixed media pieces.
Stella is recognized as one of the most influential artists of the of 20th c. (60s and 70s) for his flat, geometric paintings about ‘nothing’. Yeah, right. Nothing but an obsession with detail, depth, color, texture, and life.   He set into motion a bold new art movement formulated upon a literal ‘what you see is what you see’ concept. He abandoned pictorial references and indulged in metallic paint and geometric-shaped canvases. The public didn’t know what to make of his work at first, but they had been over-saturated with the emotionalism attached with Abstract Expressionism. This new Minimalism movement wasn’t a walk in the park for the average person, but at least it was predictable in its geometric principles and regularity. For him, he preferred that the picture function as an object rather than it representing a person, place or thing.

Stella’s paintings were included in "Three Young Americans" at Oberlin College’s  Allen Memorial Art Museum, and in the Museum of Modern Art’s "Sixteen Americans”. Stella became one of famed art dealer Leo Castelli’s stable of artists and in 1960 he began to use metallic paint and pinstripe lines to make his work. Eventually, Stella worked with letters as a shaped canvas, and then expanded that idea to include shaped canvases in concentric circles laminated on 3D wooden constructions. His colors grew more varied, and the physical shift toward the tactile surface grew more verbose.

Similarly, Stella’s approach to printmaking was just as exploratory. He began working with Master Printer Ken Tyler at Gemini G.E.L. in the mid-60s and together they came up with the then inconceivable idea to blend and mix printmaking processes.  They incorporated lithography, offset lithography, silkscreen, etching and relief,  and as the critics say, the rest is history.

I recall my first exposure to Stella’s mixed media prints at an Art Expo in Chicago in the late 1980s. As is often the case when one walks through those endless corridors displaying a cattle-call of galleries, the eyes begin to glaze and visual overload begins to set in. I turned a corner and stopped dead in my tracks before one of Stella’s six foot tall prints. I remember the vivid green and densely layered paper. Man, it had so many layers of ink (52, in fact) the thing looked like you could stand it up in a corner like an old pair of unwashed jeans. It was just fantastic, stunning to look at, and it certainly looked like no print I’d ever seen before. I promptly asked the gallery rep what it cost – as if I could afford something like that as a student. The price while high wasn’t out of reach if I wanted to sell my car and hope there was enough left over to get myself on a train back to school. You get the gist. The bug had bitten me and the die was cast. If someone could do that with a print, well there were more that had to be made.

These works were so incredible for their technical virtuosity, one understand why Stella needed to go to a printer to help him make those things. Remember, this became the era of printer-artist collaborations, and prints were flooding the art markets. An artist could make a series of prints and sell them for a fraction of the cost of a painting or sculpture. Artists recognized in those other media went, sometime at the behest of their gallery dealer, to collaborate on a print project. Fortunately, it turned a tide and from this group of artists unfamiliar with the printmaking process, many of them came to love printmaking and continued making significant prints through the next 20 years. It reinvigorated the medium and the experimental print was born.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Stella branched away from his Protractor series and created a large body of work  that was loosely inspired by  Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.  He began to call for a rejuvenated abstraction, by searching the depths of Caravaggio’s Baroque-era paintings for his inspiration. 

The result was that Stella’s paintings and prints became more wildly engaged in color and gestural strokes of color and etched surfaces. He librated traditional printmakers from the confines of a plate, stone or a silk screen. His images burst out from the paper and pulled the viewer into his compositions like a Newman or Pollock painting. Stella’s work, like Helen Frankenthaler’s, expanded the medium to do something new, and whether one likes his ‘subject matter’ or not, we must express our gratitude.

Finally, Stella’s art has been seen worldwide in several retrospectives in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He continues to live and work in New York where he also remains active working with the Artists Rights Society which is committed to protecting the rights of artists. 

1965 - Solomon Guggenheim’s ‘The Shaped Canvas’, and their 1966’s ‘Systemic Painting’
1970 – A retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, making him the youngest artist ever to receive one.
1984 - Charles Eliot Norton lectures(6) at Harvard University
2009 - National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama

*Stella pictured at right working on one of his Moby Dick inspired prints.

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