Frank Stella was born in 1936 into a family of first generation Italian immigrants in Massachusetts. His father was a gynecologist who also took a craftsman-like pride in painting the family house, and demonstrating the craft to his son.
His mother was a housewife, who also loved to paint and attended design school. (After her son graduated from Princeton in 1958 and had become a fast rising star in modern art circles, his mother’s work was included in an exhibition of New England watercolor painters at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. While attending his mother’s opening, Stella later recalled that the bank had purchased one of his huge works — roughly 10 feet high by 50 feet long. He wondered where it was and eventually discovered — to his amusement — that it was hidden by a temporary wall constructed to house the watercolors, including the work of his own mother.)
The family was moderately well off, and was able to send Stella to one of the prestigious New England prep schools, Phillips Andover. Stella’s artistic interest intensified at Andover, where his classmates included sculptor Carl Andre, and among the teachers was painter Bartlett H. Hayes Jr., the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover.
The current Frank Stella retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York — the first retrospective installed at the museum’s new $422 million exhibit space in downtown Manhattan — will be on display through February 7, 2016.
Accompanying the 70-piece exhibit is a 250-page catalog chronicling Stella’s life and art. The first chapter, “The End Depends on the Beginning,” was written by Whitney Museum director Adam D. Weinberg, a Brandeis University graduate who has a master’s degree from the Visual Studies Workshop at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Weinberg held various assistant curator positions at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the 1980s and at the Whitney in the 1990s.
Weinberg’s last position, before returning to the Whitney as director in 2003, was director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Andover — the starting point of Weinberg’s catalog essay. Below are selected excerpts from the essay, “The End Depends Upon the Beginning,” reprinted with permission of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Yale University Press:
When Stella graduated from Andover, his father made it known that he would only underwrite the cost of college if Frank went to one of three schools: Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Harvard was too close to home for Frank, and too many Andover students would be attending Yale for his liking.
So he chose Princeton, which seemed removed from Boston but close to New York, where he would have access to the art world.37 It is ironic that he selected a university that didn’t have accredited courses in studio art. As much as he loved painting . . . he did not yet imagine a career for himself as an artist, nor, for that matter, did his parents.38
While Stella majored in history, concentrating on the Middle Ages, he continued to paint, independently, during his freshman year. “By that time, even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I had gone so far down the road that there was no turning back.”39 At Andover, Stella had discovered an environment that was conducive to becoming a serious painter — a good place to paint; a mentor to guide him and model himself after; direct access to original works of art, particularly contemporary painting; and a cadre of students seriously interested in painting and abstract art. While Princeton’s art program was not nearly as progressive as Andover’s, in time the artist re-created a similar support system.
The studio, shared — not so comfortably — with the Architecture Department at McCormick Hall, did not offer the refuge of the studio at Phillips Academy. However, Stella was lucky, early on, to meet William Seitz, a painter who had fortuitously initiated the first-ever painting course (though not for credit) at Princeton the year Stella entered. Seitz, who had studied at the Albright-Knox Art School, set up an informal class where Stella and fellow student Walter Darby Bannard (who was two years ahead of him) met three times a week. [Stella made his first trip to the Whitney with Bannard in the summer of 1955.] Together, Stella and Bannard worked side by side and had periodic discussions with Seitz about their work. Seitz was an important presence in Stella’s life, though not a primary mentor.
He was a hero to the young artists because he, with the great help of Museum of Modern Art Director Alfred Barr, had successfully overcome considerable opposition to convince Princeton to permit him to undertake a Ph.D. dissertation on “Abstract-Expressionist Painting in America” during the years Stella was at Princeton.40 This awareness of the opposition to abstract painting no doubt inflamed Stella’s rebellious spirit, and further intensified his own competitive commitment to advanced art. . . Perhaps most significantly for Stella, Seitz established the artist-in-residence program at Princeton, bringing the painter Stephen Greene to teach the first for-credit painting course.
On the surface, no one would seem to be a less likely mentor for Stella than Stephen Greene. Greene had studied at the University of Iowa with both Grant Wood and Philip Guston. He was firmly committed to figurative painting. He had a passion for the Renaissance tradition, and was devoted to painting religious subjects out of a desire to evoke “the tragic” in modern-day painting. It is surprising that Stella, weaned on abstract painting, would have affinity for Greene and his approach to art.
However . . . Greene viewed his students as equals. As he said, “I sat on them, but everybody serious was treated like a painter. We’ve been all working out something.”41 As fellow student and close friend of Stella, Michael Fried, who was then a poet and later an art critic and art historian, wrote, “Greene at once recognized Stella’s genius, and they became close.”42 With his students, Greene was tough but nurturing — “each [was] allowed to find his best mode of artistic expression.”43 The seriousness of Greene’s approach impressed Stella, much as Stella’s seriousness must have impressed Greene. Both artists were locked in a common enterprise: discovering the subjects of the modern painter. Greene . . . fervently believed in pursuing one’s own ideas and not following the herd.
Accordingly, as Greene stated in a lecture, “The public and too often the artist tend to think too much in terms of movements.” He went on to say, “Art is the last place or point where you can possibly have things your way; everything else in life tends toward a compromise.”44 This attitude must have greatly encouraged Stella’s already independent cast of mind, . . . and one that would be critical in the making of his groundbreaking paintings in 1959.
Stella was no doubt delighted to be in Greene’s class, for his thinking aligned with that of his teacher as well as his fellow students. Greene felt that “the sine qua non of the artist” is “visual excitement.” “If an individual has no visual excitement, I’m sure his painting is going to be a bore.”45 And Stella was indeed passionate about making his own work. He devoured the examples of Abstract Expressionism that he encountered in Arts and Artnews, and had intensive discussions with his classmates Bannard46 and Fried about recent painting in New York and modern art in general.
With Bannard, Fried, and Greene, Stella had, in effect, reproduced the laboratory of creation and rigorous debate that he had begun at Andover. . . . Stella’s world was expanding at this time, largely thanks to Greene, who “was up-to-date on developments in New York and encouraged his students to make the one-hour train trip to Manhattan to visit art galleries.”48 In Stella’s paintings at Princeton, one can see the young artist emulating Abstract Expressionist figures who were discussed in periodicals and exhibited at the leading 57th Street galleries, including Leo Castelli, Sidney Janis, Sam Kootz, Betty Parsons, the recently opened Stable Gallery, and the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where Stella had his first exhibition after graduating from Princeton.
. . . In the 1950s, he painted on shellacked cardboard, Homasote, canvas board, board, canvas, and paper, exploring surface conditions and the depth of the support. It is in these works that we discover Stella’s early concern with notions of materiality and illusion, literal and depicted form. While at Princeton, Stella, Bannard, and Fried all felt that Clement Greenberg’s writings in Commentary, Partisan Review, The Nation, and other publications were the only critical writings worth reading.49
Greenberg, a great champion of the School of Paris and the avant-garde art in America, . . . was a great admirer of Hans Hofmann’s work, writing that “Hofmann’s inventiveness is truly enormous. . . . He can work in as many as three or four different manners in the span of a year and give them all equal emphasis,” and that “his paint surfaces breathe as no others do.”52 Such thoughts as these would have resonated with Stella, who has been preoccupied with Hofmann’s inventiveness, stylistic range, and obsession with surfaces of all sorts, actual and pictorial, for six decades.
In addition to Greene’s course, Stella took several art history classes at Princeton, including, in his junior year, a course on modern European painting taught by William Seitz. The course was both chronological and thematic. The lectures addressed topics that would have been particularly relevant for Stella, among them “Sculptural vs. Painterly,” “Movement and Time in Modern Art,” “Relativity,” “Abstraction,” and “The Creative Process.”53 Stella’s interest in and knowledge of art history, while working as a practitioner of art, carried over from the integrated approach he had experienced at Andover.
However, it wasn’t merely the knowledge of movements, styles, and artworks that was important for Stella, it was understanding how shifts, ruptures, transformations, and innovations occurred. Knowledge of these concepts was key to his rapid advancement in becoming a mature artist.
Stella’s senior thesis, written for the Department of History on the hefty topic of “Art in Western Christendom” — focusing in particular on the influence of monasticism and politics in Celtic, Carolingian, and Ottonian manuscript illumination — has often been cited in relationship to the development of his own art, particularly as it evolved in the 1970s.
In this text, he makes a case for the development of “aesthetic thinking or feeling,” embracing an individualistic, self-directed perspective that, in effect, elevates the best illumination from mere decoration to the level of art.54 This was significant for the artist in his reconsideration of illusionistic space, a space he believed Pollock had reinvented, and a space he sought to push to the limits in his own art.55
His comparative study on Mikhail Lermontov and Edouard Manet as he himself was mentally preparing to go against the tide of prevailing artistic styles and opinions is particularly telling. In his last year at Princeton, Stella wrote a research paper demonstrating some of the formal and historical questions common to the writings of Lermontov and the paintings of Manet. (Stella has had a long fascination with Manet, beginning at Andover.)56 . . .
As Stella asserts, these figures had personalities “marked with realism and detachment which shapes everything into a pattern of its own aesthetic and social viewpoints.”57 Stella, the student and the painter, is thinking here about paradigm shifts and remaking the world on his own artistic terms, trying to comprehend what it takes and how it’s accomplished. He is looking to history to discern the nature of the problem — how to be original and subvert tradition — and then figuring out how to solve it. In his essay, he is modeling their behavior, their conceptual distance, their courage, their disregard for predominant attitudes and positions.
The paper is indeed a manifesto of sorts for the young artist. (The way Stella constructs an argument over twenty-five pages and partly undoes it at the end is itself a meta-example of his revolutionary attitude.)58 As he points out, Lermontov and Manet encountered “astounding difficulty in presenting these views [their aesthetic and social beliefs] to their contemporaries. Both . . . were great technical innovators in the formal aspects of writing and painting, and both met critical disapproval of their efforts. Both also offered a social critique of their contemporaries which met with general misunderstanding and distaste.”59
They survived this, according to Stella, because of their “aloofness” and “detachment,” which had “strong aristocratic” overtones.60 Furthermore, he argues, their main problem was that “both became great innovators as a result of the necessity [my emphasis] of destroying old ideas.”61 Stella in effect defines the situation in this paper as such: there is always resistance to new concepts, one must be above the fray (as Patrick Morgan said, “My work is the criticism”), one must find those who are supportive of one’s position, and one must accept the need to abandon previously held ideas.
Consequently, Stella has a degree of detachment that has enabled him to take a long view of his work; and while he was not “an aristocrat,” he had all of the benefits of what he knew was an elite education.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, as Stella observes, Manet “resisted his father’s attempt to make him a lawyer by doing poorly in all school subjects except gymnastics, drawing and history.”62 While Stella was a good student, these same areas — sports, art, and history — were his strong suits. And, similar to Manet, his parents would have liked him to become a lawyer, which was where Stella thought he was headed up until graduation.63
In fact, Stella took a pre-law class at Princeton, in which he earned high marks. “I wasn’t even that interested in it — except for one idea, which it sort of turns out is the same as in painting: precedent is kind of important. So if you’re a good artist, your work is without precedent. That’s the highest accolade you can get.”64 And the notion of doing something without precedent is precisely what Stella was contemplating: How does one do so? What would that mean in his art, and for himself as an artist? Stella knew that to succeed in his art he must do something that hadn’t been done before, but not for its own sake.
About the catalogue: This landmark catalogue by Michael Auping surveys the full sweep of Stella’s career, from his artistic beginnings to late-career architectural pieces created with the aid of computer software. It also includes an interview with Stella conducted by American painter Laura Owens. This publication is the most thorough examination to date of Stella’s contributions in all media, which cement his role as one of the most important practitioners of modern abstraction.
Hardcover with slipcase. 250 pages, 157 color illustrations. Whitney Museum of American Art, 2015. $65. Visit www.whitney.org.
#b#On the Cover#/b#
Finding a Frank Stella image for our cover that would convey a sense of Stella’s expansive artistic range and also resonate with the winter season that this issue turned out to be a challenge.
When nothing presented itself we began to look at Stella’s work in combinations. His 1985 piece, “Gobba, zopa e collotorto,” on etched magnesium and aluminum, left, had a metallic basis that made us think of a Christmas tree ornament. When we turned the image 90 degrees we saw a star on top of that tree.
But where was a tree? “East Broadway,” Stella’s 1958 black and mustard yellow abstract, jumped out at us. We took two images of “East Broadway,” spliced them together so that the door overlapped to look like a tree trunk, cropped accordingly, and then asked our graphic artist, Vaughan Burton, to change the mustard yellow to forest green.
That’s how we did it. How Frank Stella does what he does — nearly 60 years after his days on the Princeton University campus — remains a wonder to us.
Frank Stella: A Retrospection – Essay by Adam D. Weinberg titled “The End Depends Upon the Beginning,” pages 1-12. Footnotes, from pages 6 through 10:
37, 64 Frank Stella in conversation with Adam Weinberg, Dec. 8, 2014
38 Phillips Academy catalogue, 1955, 85. Archives and Special Collections, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA
39 ,46, 55, 56 Oral History interview with Frank Stella 1969, transcript, 18, 25-26.
40 William Chapin Seitz, Abstract Expressionist Painting in America: An Interpretation based on the Work and Thought of Six Key Figures, Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1955, page 649.
41 Robert M. Rehder, “ On the Campus”, Princeton Alumni Weekly 57, No.18, (March 1, 1957): 16
42, 48, 49 Michael Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p.3.
44 Stephen Green papers, 1945-1969, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
45 Anthony E. Neville, “Painting Program,” Princeton Alumni Weekly 57, no.20 (March 8, 1957):13
52 Clement Greenberg, “Hans Hoffman,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 189-92
53, 57, 58, 59, 61, 62, 63 Frank Stella papers, 1941-1993, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.