Frank Stella was born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. His father was gynecologist. He was interested in art since elementary school, although he avoided realistic drawing, because, as he has often admitted, he really wasn't very good at it. Stella entered Phillip Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1950. At that point, he was drawn to the geometric abstraction of Mondrian.
He then attended Princeton University, beginning in 1954, where majored in history. He still continued to paint. His teachers, who were involved with the avant-garde, interested Stella in the museums and galleries in New York City. He was drawn to the works of the Abstract Expressionists because of their size and the composition. On a more personal level, he enjoyed house painting and the fact that the abstract expressionists used large brushes. Most of his paintings at Princeton were in the abstract expressionist style. During his junior year at Princeton, he wrote an essay comparing manuscript illuminations to Jackson Pollock's paintings.
Stella reacted against abstract expressionism in he senior year at Princeton. He was searching for a simple style and found that he was impressed with Jasper Johns' "Flag" and "Target" paintings. Influenced by the simple motifs and repetition of Johns' paintings, Stella produced works with box forms placed in different arrangements of stripes. He graduated from Princeton in 1958 and rented in inexpensive storefront in New York City's lower east side as a studio. During this time, he supported himself as a house painter. He was painting in a semi-geometric style and using commercial paint, which he bought for a dollar a gallon.
In late 1958, Stella began a series of black-stripe paintings in which he eliminated the box forms. These paintings consisted of symmetrical rectangular or diamond-shaped stripe patterns. The stripes were painted with a house-painter's brush and the space in between was blank, unprimed canvas. He used thick stretchers that protruded from the wall, which gave the paintings a certain "objectness". Stella's black paintings met with immediate success and were shown in many exhibits, but the most prestigious, especially for a twenty-three-year-old, was the exhibit titled "Sixteen Americans," at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. These bold, anti-illusionistic paintings established Stella as an important Post-Painterly Abstractionist, and in fact are seen by many as the beginning of Minimalism.
In the early 1960's,the older abstract expressionists perceived Stella as a threat to their careers. His work was often ridiculed by these painters and he was viewed by the older generation as the juvenile delinquent of contemporary art. Although this was probably painful, such attention was actually a positive factor in the development of his career. It is small wonder that his work upset the abstract expressionists. In repudiating not only their techniques but also their fundamental beliefs about painting, Stella invented "systemic painting." Here, the painting was designed systematically and he eliminated all signs of paint and brush strokes from the finished painting. These paintings are not composed but designed so that the artist would simply follow the "system" until the painting is finished. There is no spontaneity. The configuration or content of the painting was determined by the shape of the outside edge of the canvas, which served as a guide for everything else within the painting.
Typically, Stella would work on paintings in a series, grouped together under a common name. This would allow him to explore a theme or series of ideas about painting until he had fully explored the ideas or his interest waned. After the black paintings, he executed a series of "Aluminum" paintings. He used metallic aluminum paint with very simple stripe patterns, but between them, he cut away parts of the canvas. Because he had trouble conforming the patterns to the canvas, he started using shaped canvases. The "Aluminum" series was shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City in 1960, Stella's first one-man show.
The "Copper" series paintings used L- or U-shaped canvases. Later, Stella returned to the simplicity of the black painting in the series, "Benjamin Moore." This series was named for a brand of alkyd paint he used straight from the can. These six square monochromatic stripe paintings, one each in the primary and secondary colors, were shown in his first solo exhibit in Paris in 1961.
Stella's "Purple" series, painted in 1963, were what he called "portraits," and they were named after such friends as Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend. This series was painted on shaped canvas in such shapes as a triangle, a trapezoid, and a pentagon.
During 1964 and 1965, Stella experimented with fluorescent Day-Glo paint for his "Moroccan" series of paintings. He used this same fluorescent acrylic paint in his "Protractor" series of 1967. These celebrated paintings were painted on semi-circular and circular shaped canvases.
In 1970, Frank Stella, at the age thirty-three, was then the youngest artist to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. During the 1970s, the year of his retrospective, he introduced new materials into his work. Three-dimensional constructions of paint, paper, felt, and canvas were mounted on cardboard supports. This series was called "Polish Villages", and the titles for the paintings were taken from the names of eighteenth-century wooden synagogues destroyed during World War II in Poland and Russia.
In 1975, Stella began working on etched honeycomb aluminum surfaces with brightly colored lacquers, oils, and ground glass for his "Exotic Bird" series. One of the paintings in this series, titled "Puerto Rican Blue Pigeon, is owned by The Ohio State University, an is in the collection of the Wexner Center. In the "Exotic Bird" series, the brush strokes were clearly visible and they were applied in a spontaneous manner. This improvisation with paint is in a manner similar to the abstract expressionists, and here Stella seems to have gone full circle back to the ideas of the painters who had attacked him early in his career. The aluminum frameworks extend out from the wall into space, and the dominant form in many of these paintings is the French Curve.
Since then he has continued to work on aluminum surfaces covered with bright colors and chaotic activity. These paintings, much to the surprise of the art world, seem to embrace the complex spatial dynamics the Baroque, which is a complete departure from the Minimalist aesthetic, which Stella helped to establish. Stella's interest in the Baroque period was enhanced by a yearlong visit to Rome in 1982 and 1983, where he discovered the sixteenth-century paintings of Caravaggio, one of the leading Baroque painters. During and after that visit, he began to use ideas from Caravaggio to create a new type of space in his own works.
These works continue in the 1990's, with the forms becoming more biomorphic, sculptural and in many respects architectural. In fact, as we enter a new century, Stella has been commissioned to develop architectural projects.
Stella married Barbara Rose, the art critic, in 1961. They had two children, but their marriage ended in divorce. He has since remarried.
Stella is an extraordinary genius who was christened "the father of Minimalim" at the very young age of 23 and yet was able to move beyond minimalism to create an entirely new type of art, which broke the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and is seen by many as one of the most influential painters of the 20th century.
Page author: C.A.