Biography of Frank Stella, Painter and Sculptor

Frank Stella painting at Art Basel Hong Kong
Frank Stella, "Lettre sur les sourds et muets I".

S3studio / Getty Images

Frank Stella (born May 12, 1936) is an American artist known for developing a Minimalist style that rejected the emotionality of Abstract Expressionism. His earliest celebrated works were painted in black. Throughout his career, Stella shifted to a more exuberant use of color, shapes and curving forms. He calls his artistic development an evolution from Minimalism to Maximalism.

Fast Facts: Frank Stella

  • Occupation: Artist
  • Known For: Developing both the Minimalist and Maximalist artistic styles
  • Born: May 12, 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts
  • Education: Princeton University
  • Selected Works: "Die Fahne Hoch!" (1959), "Harran II" (1967)
  • Notable Quote: "What you see is what you see."

Early Life

Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Frank Stella grew up in a well-to-do Italian-American family. He attended the prestigious Phillips Academy, a prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. There, he first encountered the work of abstract artists Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman. The school had its own art gallery with works by multiple prominent American artists. After graduating from high school, he attended Princetown University as a history major.

Picture as Object: The 1950s and Early 1960s

After college graduation in 1958, Frank Stella moved to New York City. He didn't have a specific plan in mind. He merely wanted to create things. While creating his own works, he labored part-time as a house painter.

Stella rebelled against abstract expressionism at its peak of popularity. He was interested in Barnett Newman's color field experiments and Jasper Johns' target paintings. Stella considered his paintings objects instead of a representation of something physical or emotional. He said that a painting was "a flat surface with paint on it, nothing more."

In 1959, Stella's black-striped paintings were positively received by the New York art scene. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City included four Frank Stella paintings in its landmark 1960 exhibition Sixteen Americans. One of those was "The Marriage of Reason and Squalor," a series of black inverted parallel U-shapes with stripes separated by thin lines of blank canvas. The title is in part a reference to Stella's living conditions at the time in Manhattan. Despite the appearance of precise regularity in his black paintings, Frank Stella did not use tape or outside devices to create straight lines. He painted them freehand, and a close inspection reveals some irregularities.

Stella was suddenly a prominent artist before age 25. He was one of the first painters branded a Minimalist for his view of art as an end in itself. In 1960, with the Aluminum series, Stella worked with his first shaped canvases that abandoned the traditional squares and rectangles used by painters. Throughout the 1960s, he continued to experiment with more colors in his paintings and canvases in shapes other than squares or rectangles. The geometrically-shaped canvases were a feature of the Copper Paintings (1960-1961). They included another innovation. Stella used a special boat paint designed to inhibit the growth of barnacles. In 1961, he created a Benjamin Moore series named after the brand of house paint used. It impressed Andy Warhol so much that the pop artist bought all of the pieces. The Leo Castelli Gallery in New York presented Stella's first one-person show in 1962.

In 1961, Frank Stella married the art critic Barbara Rose. They divorced in 1969.

Sculptural Painting and Printing: Late 1960s and 1970s

In the late 1960s, Stella began working with master printer Kenneth Tyler. He added printmaking to his continue explorations in painting. Tyler encouraged Stella to create his first prints by filling Magic Markers, Stella's favorite drawing tool, with lithography fluid. His prints were as innovative as his paintings. He incorporated screen-printing and etching in his techniques for creating prints.

Frank Stella continued to paint, too. Stella added wood, paper, and felt to a painted canvas and called them maximalist paintings because of their three-dimensional elements. HIs works began blurring the distinctions between painting and sculpture. Despite the wide range of three-dimensional shapes incorporated into his pieces, Stella said that sculpture "is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere."

Frank Stella designed the set and costumes for the 1967 dance piece Scramble choreographed by Merce Cunningham. As part of the set, he stretched fabric banners on moveable poles. It created a three-dimensional rendering of his famous stripe paintings.

In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art presented a retrospective of Frank Stella's work. In the 1970s, building upon the bright colors of the late-1960s Protractor series and his seminal piece Harran II, Stella's works were more and more exuberant in style with curving forms, Day-Glo colors, and idiosyncratic brushstrokes that looked like scribbles.

Frank Stella married Harriet McGurk, his second wife, in 1978. He has five children from three relationships.

Monumental Sculptures and Later Work: 1980s and Later

Music and literature influenced much of Stella's later work. In 1982-1984, he created a series of twelve prints titled Had Gaya inspired by a folk song sung at the Jewish Seder. From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, Frank Stella created multiple pieces related to Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. Each piece was inspired by a different chapter in the book. He used a wide variety of techniques, creating works that range from giant sculptures to mixed-media prints.

A long-time fan of automobile racing, Stella painted a BMW for the Le Mans race in 1976. That experience led to the early 1980s series Circuits. The individual titles are taken from the names of famous international car race tracks.

By the 1990s, Stella also began creating large free-standing sculptures for public places as well as architectural projects. In 1993, he designed all of the decorating for Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, including a 10,000-square-foot mural. Frank Stella continued to innovate in the 1990s and the 2000s, using the technology of computer-aided drafting and 3-D printing to design his sculptures and architectural proposals.

Legacy

Frank Stella is considered one of the greatest living artists. His innovations in minimalist style and incorporations of bright colors and three-dimensional objects have influenced generations of contemporary American artists. He was a primary influence on prominent color field artists including Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre. The architects Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind also count Stella as a crucial influence.

Sources

  • Auping, Michael. Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Yale University Press, 2015.
  • Stella, Frank. Working Space. Harvard University Press, 1986.