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With Artist Frank Stella, What You See Is What You See

Frank Stella does huge work — some of it 20 feet tall and twice as long — so he has a suitably supersized studio about an hour's drive north of New York City. With hundreds of artworks and tables strewn with ideas in progress, the studio is a museum in itself.

"This is a piece from 1970, that's a piece I guess from the '80s," Stella says, "and this is a very recent piece from about a year ago." He points to one of several free-standing organic forms — a matte black sculpture that looks kind of like the small, dried seedpods he has nearby, but not. It's different from anything he's done before.

Stella is one of the most influential and respected artists of the 20th century, and at nearly 80 years old he's still pushing the possibilities of his art. Over a six-decade-long career, he has done sculptures, three-dimensional reliefs, brightly-colored geometric shapes and mostly black paintings that literally changed the way people looked at art in the late 1950s. All that and more is currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art's traveling retrospective of Stella's work, curated in partnership with the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

"The integrity of being an artist for Frank means going into the unknown," says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney and co-curator of the retrospective. He says, "A great artist is somebody who's not scared to reinvent themselves and to start all over again. And some artists do it once, twice, three times in their career. He's done it probably a dozen times or more."

Stella has pretty much always painted, whether it was helping his father paint the house or his mother decorate clamshells at home in Massachusetts. "I'm more of a house painter," he says. "That's the way I work."

Frank Stella, <em>Chocorua IV</em>, 1966.
/ Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Frank Stella, Chocorua IV, 1966.

Stella started painting seriously in high school, and even then he was ambitious. "I had to find a way to paint abstractly, which is what I wanted to do," he says. "And, you know, I couldn't forget [Wassily] Kandinsky and [Kazimir] Malevich and [Piet] Mondrian, I mean that was the basis. You know, and you couldn't forget [Pablo] Picasso, [Henri] Matisse and [Joan] Miro either. And it had to be, you know, at least as good or better."

But Stella didn't want to be like any of them. His goal was to not depict anything, something he notoriously achieved in 1958 with his black paintings. Co-curator Adam Weinberg says they changed everything.

"It's basically one color of paint," he says. "You have bits of canvas that are unpainted and you have these thick stretcher bars. So you see that a painting is an object; that it's not a window into something — you're not looking at a landscape, you're not looking at a portrait, but you're looking at a painting. It's basically: A painting is a painting is a painting. And it's what he said famously: What you see is what you see."

Though, in this case, it took Stella some time to see it. He'd done a painting with red stripes (minimalist, geometric) and wasn't entirely happy, so he painted it over all black before he went to bed. In the morning, he considered what he'd done.

Stella's <em>Die Fahne hoch!</em> (1959) is part of a series of paintings that earned the artist notoriety in the 1950s.
2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital Image / Whitney Museum, N.Y.
Whitney Museum, N.Y.
Stella's Die Fahne hoch! (1959) is part of a series of paintings that earned the artist notoriety in the 1950s.

"It still looked like a mess," Stella says, "but it was, as a lot of people say, an interesting mess, because the stripes were then all black so it wasn't a two-color painting anymore. It was a kind of one-color painting. But the idea was there."

Some art critics thought it was terrible. "There's a lot of difference between being well known and being notorious," Stella says, "and the black paintings didn't make me well known — they made me notorious."

Macarthur Genius grantee Julie Mehretu is just one of the younger artists Stella has influenced. She calls him a legend. She says, "Once I really started to understand his work and follow it, there's a certain type of invention and playfulness and extreme rigor with which he kept going forward."

Stella applies that rigor to everything he does, including his series: "Moby Dick" comprises 135 works, one for each chapter of the novel, and "Scarlatti Kirkpatrick," after the composer, is even bigger.

"The kick with Scarlatti was obvious," Stella says. "I mean, Scarlatti started writing sonatas when he was 66 and the idea that he ran off 500 or so after he was 66 was just too much for me to resist. It's just great, you know. I've still probably only done about 250."

Stella says it's the work that keeps him going, not so much the hoopla of a career retrospective.

"It's certainly not just another show," he says. "But on the other hand, I get cranky real easily. So the honor of it and the wonder of it all and everything has a hard time overcoming the petty annoyances; I mean, that's simply the reality of being alive, I guess. I mean, you know, it sounds fatuous, but I'll get over it. ... That's my job, right?"

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Karen Michel