16 things to know about Frank Stella
An introduction to the artist whose striped works, monumental prints and revolutionary approach to materials have had a profound impact on the world of abstract art
One of the most highly regarded post-war American painters still working today, Stella’s style has constantly evolved. The controlled minimalism of his works in the late 1950s and early ’60s gave way to maximalist riots of colour later in his career — with subsequent works surpassing 2D canvas to become sculptural. His approach to materials is just as revolutionary, comprising house and car paint, cast aluminium, fibreglass, and the latest 3D-printing techniques.
2. Stella started out painting houses and boats
Born to first-generation Sicilians in the small town of Malden, Massachusetts, Stella’s father was a gynaecologist, while his mother was an artistically inclined housewife who attended fashion school and painted landscapes. His father worked 60-hour weeks, and insisted his son both study hard and learn the importance of manual labour. Stella’s first experience of painting was re-coating houses and boats — generally on his father’s orders.
3. He developed a reputation for feistiness
As a teen, Stella attended the prestigious Phillips Academy, where he once lost three teeth in a dormitory scuffle. His fiery attitude, however, was combined with a sharp intelligence; in 1954, he entered Princeton University, majoring in history. A talented lacrosse player, he also began to paint.
4. New York became the artist’s adopted home
When he graduated in 1958, Stella moved to the city, reasoning: ‘I came here because it was the place where you could see art that I was interested in — it’s as simple as that’. It was here that he encountered the work of Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, and where he rented his first apartment. Today, in his eighties, he lives in downtown Manhattan, keeping a studio in upstate New York.
5. His first studio was a mess
The bleak conditions of Stella’s first New York studio were reflected in the 1959 work The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II — its title referring both to Stella’s artistic intent and his less-than ideal living conditions.
6. Stella has always been acutely aware of other artists and art critics
His early works were inspired by the Abstract Expressionists he encountered in New York, Stella later commenting: ‘I wouldn’t have bothered becoming an artist if I didn’t like the artists of that generation so much.’ If Pollock and Kline proved influential, so too did the ‘flatness’ of work by Barnett Newman — as did paintings by Jasper Johns, whose 1958 exhibition first inspired Stella to use his now-trademark stripes as a compositional tool.
7. He shaped printmaking
The artist first began to make a profound engagement with the medium in the mid-1960s, working with master printer Kenneth Tyler, who convinced Stella to make his first prints by filling a Magic Marker — the artist’s preferred drawing implement — with lithography fluid. His abstract prints proved as innovative as his canvas works, employing a vast array of techniques, including lithography, screenprinting, etching, and offset lithography — a method which Stella himself is credited with inventing. Printed by Waddington Custot galleries, the artist’s Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s ‘Had Gadya’ series is an excellent example of Stella’s diversity as a print maker — each rhythmic, detailed work combining hand colouring with lithographic, linoleum block and silkscreen.
8. Art filtered into his personal relationships
From 1958-60, he shared a loft with photographer Hollis Frampton and sculptor Carl Andre, who said of their relationship ‘we educate each other’. Andre — who was experimenting with paint at the time — recalled: ‘One day Frank Stella just said to me, “Look, if you paint another painting I’m going to cut off your hands […] you are a good sculptor now.”’ A brief marriage to celebrated art critic Barbara Rose sparked the 1965 show Shape and Structure — one of the earliest exhibitions of Minimal art, curated with the Met’s Henry Geldzahler.
9. Early DIY proved useful
When he moved to New York, Stella was still painting houses to pay rent, and continued to use the house painter’s brush and enamel when making his Black Paintings (1958-60).
The process was documented in Hollis Frampton’s tongue-in-cheek photo essay The Secret World of Frank Stella, which showed the artist approaching canvases as he would a house — as a space to be filled by increasingly proximate concentric lines. The later ‘Copper Paintings’ (1960-61) employed the barnacle-inhibiting paint he had used the previous summer on the hull of his father’s boat. Named after the brand of household paint Stella has used to create them, the 1961 ‘Benjamin Moore’ series so impressed Andy Warhol that he bought them all.
10. But he has never used masking tape
Stella’s works are often called ‘pinstripe paintings’, though the implied regularity is inaccurate. When working, the artist doesn’t measure out lines, as many critics have presumed, but works freehand — subtly deviating from a perfect straight line with natural bows in pliable stretched canvas.
11. Stella caught the art world’s eye at a young age
His work featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art before he was 25, and he had his first retrospective at the museum when he was just 34 — far younger than many artists to have received the same honour. Hospitalised for knee surgery when the show opened, Stella used the occasion, not to take stock, but to produce reams of drawings. ‘I don’t know how to draw in the sense of pure drawing. I need to go to the material stage as quickly as I can,’ he concluded.
12. He revolutionised canvas
Concerned by a dissonance between painted lines and the shape of the canvas, Stella began to remove sections of paintings that seemed superfluous. The earliest examples — the Aluminium Paintings (1960) and Copper Paintings (1960-1961), were followed by works that extended the concept of the shaped canvas, including the Irregular Polygon canvases (1965-67) and the later Protractor series (1967-71). Over the next decade, Stella introduced relief into his art, describing his approach as ‘maximalist’ painting, because of its sculptural qualities. For artist John Chamberlain, he is a ‘sculptor’s painter’.
13. He is capable of producing narrative abstract works
In 1983, Stella became a Professor of Poetry at Harvard University — a reflection of the increasing influence of literature in his practice. Stella’s Had Gadya series became one of the most significant examples of this influence. Made from 1982-84, the series of 12 prints was inspired by the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s lithographs of 1919, which were based on the folk song sung following the Seder, the religious meal served in Jewish homes on the first or second night of Passover. Describing the significance of these works, which he saw in a visit to the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981, Stella commented: ‘He [Lissitzky] attempted something few abstract painters have ever tried to do: address a narrative.’
14. His titles matter
The names of Stella’s works are significant, loading abstract images with emotional meaning. The brooding reverberations of the Black Paintings were amplified by provocative German titles related to National Socialism and the Nazi Party. The artist commented: ‘The Black Paintings were dark, very dark. Some of them needed dark titles.’
In the Had Gadya series, the names of Stella’s prints follow the lines of the traditional song, with each new line resulting from the preceding one. ‘One small goat Papa,’ is followed by ‘A hungry cat ate up the goat’ — the subsequent print entitled ‘Then came a dog and bit the cat’. Though its meaning is open to interpretation, the song is commonly read as a symbolic reference to the nations that have suppressed Israel throughout history.
15. Stella is not Jewish
Although his works have frequently been concerned with elements of Jewish history. Made before Had Gadya, his Polish Village (1971–3) series is a group of more than 100 works focusing on the destruction of Polish synagogues by the Nazi Party.
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16. He is not afraid to go big
If the artist’s later print works were remarkable for their diversity, so too, was their scale. Works in the Had Gadya series measured up to 60 in x 53¼ in (152 cm x 135 cm), their monumentality expressing an affinity with architectural structures first hinted at in the space-defining lines of his earliest work.