Frank Stella Illustrations after El Lissitzkys ‘Had Gadya’

When Frank Stella’s children were little, he took them to Coney Island aquarium to see the whales. Fascinated, they went home and he read “Moby Dick” to them aloud. Thus began the artist’s fascination with Herman Melville’s tale of the great white whale.

To honor Stella on his 60 years since graduating from Princeton University, the Art Museum is exhibiting “Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking” through September 23. The exhibition focuses on the period in the artist’s printmaking career between 1984 and 1999, when he executed four ambitious print series, each named after a literary work: the Passover song “Had Gadya,” a compilation of Italian folktales, the epic American novel “Moby-Dick,” and the illustrated “Dictionary of Imaginary Places.”

With 41 prints, “Frank Stella Unbound” is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the role literature played in his exploration of the print medium. The master abstractionist pioneered new innovations in printmaking.

Born in 1936, Stella grew up in Malden, Massachusetts. His father was a gynecologist, his mother a housewife who had attended design school — both parents liked to paint. Before Princeton, Stella graduated from Phillips Andover Academy, where his classmates included the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. (Stella was among Andre’s friends who put up bail when Andre was accused of murdering his third wife, the artist Ana Mendieta.)

At Princeton Stella took classes in studio art but majored in art history, completing his senior thesis on medieval Irish, Carolingian, and Ottonian art. The Daily Princetonian reviewed his shows on campus with a note to “keep an eye on this guy, he’s going places,” says Princeton University Museum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Mitra Abbaspour. Later that same year, he moved to New York and began the “Black Paintings” that launched his career. Stella’s innovative use of flat, ready-made colors, austere shapes, and deductive compositions exerted a formative influence on minimalist sculpture.

Princeton classmate Michael Fried, an art historian and critic, championed Stella’s work. Within 12 years of his Princeton graduation, Stella had a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney.

The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl called Stella “a god of the 60s art world” in his review of Stella’s 2015 Whitney retrospective, “exalting tastes for reductive form, daunting scale, and florid artificial color. His impact on abstract art was something like Dylan’s on music and Warhol’s on more or less everything.”

For the print series in “Stella Unbound,” the artist worked with master printer Ken Tyler, who had studied at June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles before starting his own studio, Gemini. Wanting to challenge the medium, Tyler brought in such artists at Josef Albers, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg, and then invited Stella. Stella had previously thought of printmaking as a way to reproduce artwork, not as artwork in and of itself. Working with Tyler he began to weave his painting and sculpture into printmaking.

Tyler soon moved Gemini from L.A. to upstate New York to be closer to the New York art world. Stella even set up his own lithography press in his Jones Street studio.

An introductory essay to the catalog for “Stella Unbound” by exhibition curators Abbaspour and Calvin Brown points out that Stella does not illustrate the texts; rather, he finds rhythms and organizational structures, transforming the narrative properties to a visual vocabulary of gesture and geometric forms.

In 1982 Stella began working on the print series “Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya.” The Russian constructivist artist El Lissitsky (1890-1941) had created a suite of 11 gouache illustrations, one for each of the verses of the traditional Passover song, plus a frontispiece and dust jacket. Stella, in response and tribute, produced one print for each of Lissitzky’s illustrations plus additional prints as front and back covers, to explore the ways in which the structure of a literary text — specifically a verse-based narrative — could inform and be communicated as signs and shapes in a language of abstraction.

Stella’s “Italian Folktales” —eight intaglio prints (in which the image is incised into a surface and the engraved or etched line holds the ink) — followed in 1988-’89 and was based on the colorful anthology of folklore compiled and retold by Italian journalist and novelist Italo Calvino and published in Italy in 1956, translated into English in 1980. As in the oral tradition of folktales, these prints develop as variations with intricate overlapping shapes and marks.

Monumental in scope and scale, the “Moby Dick” prints grew from American artist and illustrator Rockwell Kent’s (1882-1971) series of graphic, black-and-white woodcut prints to illustrate a deluxe edition of the novel. Between 1989 and 1993 Stella created more than 266 individual works — paintings, sculptures, and prints, all titled after the 135 chapters of the epic novel.

“It was the magnum opus of his career,” says Abbaspour. “He worked on the Moby Dick series for 12 years, starting with maquettes based on the whale wave form. Then he has an epiphany to do every character.”

First published in 1980, “The Dictionary of Imaginary Places” by Argentina-born writer and editor Alberto Manguel and Italian historian Gianni Guadalupi is a witty encyclopedia of fictional lands and places from literature, with fanciful maps and illustrations. “It’s like a Baedeker guide with entries from Xanadu, Atlantis, Oz, Narnia, written and illustrated with maps as if it were real,” says Brown.

Stella evolved the compositions for the richly complex prints he made in response by creating collages that he cut, tore, and layered together from myriad sources, including excerpts drawn from his extensive archive of printed proofs, computer renderings, industrial printing plates, and found images reproduced from old pattern books. Translated by Stella’s studio collaborators at Tyler Graphics into combinations of mixed techniques, the “Imaginary Places” prints utilize nearly every reproductive process known to the history of Western art, printed on single sheets of handmade paper.

As the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 1984, Stella delivered six lectures. “He was one of a few visual artists to have this honor, another was Ben Shahn,” says Brown. “He talked about the history of Western art and the evolution of abstraction, beginning with Baroque and through Manet, Picasso, and Kandinsky and abstraction. At the end he questions whether abstract painting can continue on and evolve.”

“The question we must ask ourselves is,” said Stella at the time, “Can we find a mode of pictorial expression that will do for abstraction now what Caravaggio’s pictorial genius did for 16th-century naturalism? The expectation is that the answer is yes.”

“He wants to reinvigorate abstraction with these four cycles of prints,” says Brown. “Tyler and Stella worked together in a way that spurred their creative energy. They dared each other to do bigger and more elaborate things. Tyler was a printmaking innovator who engineered processes and invented presses” such as a concave press for making convex prints. “It’s insane,” says Brown of the amount of thought and innovation that goes into the process. Stella, at that time, was making sculpture and reliefs, and from the metal fabricator in Connecticut he took scraps and turned them into printing elements.

Instead of building one large copper plate, for example, printing elements would be built into multiple individual plates, then collaged and inked at once — all fit like puzzle pieces into a large plywood base. “He keeps a library of past proofs in Tyler’s workshop, then cuts them up and re-assembles them to make new prints. There are patterns from Ben-Day dots from enlargements to orange construction fencing and a digitized image of cigar smoke. It’s, like, nuts.”

Stella and Tyler’s relationship was deeply collaborative. Brown compares Stella to the composer, Tyler, the conductor, and the printmaking team (about eight or nine members) the orchestra. “Stella thinks of sound and the conductor assigns it to the orchestra.”

Abbaspour has been working on this exhibition since she interviewed for the job 18 months ago. Much of the work has been loaned by Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960, who endowed her position. “He is an important collector of late 20th-century abstract art and profoundly believes abstract art is about innovative thinking, and how pieces of the puzzle fit together,” Abbaspour says.

Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, September 23, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu

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