Looking back on his six decade-long career, the American artist Frank Stella (b. 1936) seems laid-back about the direction it has taken. ‘I had an idea — a pretty solid idea — about what I did and where it came from,’ he confesses. ‘It was basically making paintings that were 20th-century paintings. That wasn’t so complicated,’ he quips. ‘It was really quite obvious.’
In our short film (above), Stella shows us around the vast white warehouse, located a few hours north of New York City, that serves as his studio. The space is filled with his latest monumental sculptures — the largest of which live outside — and maquettes for as yet unrealised works.
‘I moved here to work in 2000,’ says the 82-year-old, explaining his need for such a lofty location. ‘I was in here using the space for storage from about 1990… In studios in New York we did plenty of 50-foot-long things, but paintings you can roll up; it’s a little easier to handle than a 50-foot piece of sculpture.’
Stopping at a new, large grey work made in his foundry next door and mounted to the wall, Stella — known for the geometric patterns in his work — explains that it is a sculpture of a smoke ring. ‘The idea was that it was more organic, but also to do with direction and fluidity.’
The artist rummages through boxes filled with sculptural fragments, skims his hand across the carbon-fibre surfaces of his new three dimensional works — ‘we’re making a few stars’ — and contemplates how his output has evolved. ‘The thing about art history is you can’t get away from it. It’s hard not to see the paintings from the past in terms of what you do. No matter what kind of artist you are. I already know what I did... But the idea of how it related to paintings before modernism, before the 20th century, wasn’t so clear.’
In May, Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in New York will include two of Stella’s early-career paintings consigned from his personal collection, as part of a larger sale of works from his collection.
Lettre Sur Les Aveugles I (1974), and WWRL (1967), are two of the artist’s signature monumental geometric canvases. When asked how he painted them, Stella laughs. ‘I want to say with my feet, but actually I use my hands... the very large paintings, we didn’t do them vertically or against the wall, we did them much the same as Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, all those people who painted on the floor,’ he explains.
‘We painted on the floor with a bridge over [the canvas] so we could paint around the edges and then paint in the middle... It avoids dripping. You start in one corner and go all the way around... and then you end in that same place where you started.
‘If it’s a single concentric square painting, it pretty much is what it is. If it’s a double version of concentric squares side by side, it’s obviously some kind of play on binocular vision,’ he clarifies.
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When it comes to letting go of old ideas and moving into new territories, Stella is not someone to get bogged down in the past. ‘You move along because you’re thinking about what you’ve done and then maybe where you’re going or what you should be doing,’ he remarks. ‘I guess it’s as simple as that: you know what you did, and then what you can do.’