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Frank Stella: Experiment and Change

Frank Stella: Experiment and Change



Installation of Frank Stella: Experiment and Change at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale  4:31 min.

Video by Elman + Bonilla.  Music:  Carmen Cicero


Editor’s Note:  The video above was recorded during the installation of the Frank Stella exhibition at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale on October 27, 28, 30. You must be connected to the Internet to view the video.  The essay below by museum director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater is copyrighted by the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.


Frank Stella: Experiment and Change spans Frank Stella’s sixty-year career from the late 1950s to the present. Comprising approximately three hundred works, including paintings, relief sculptures, and drawings, the exhibition offers new insight into the trajectory of his work from the early minimalist geometric paintings to increasingly complex constructions and large sculptures.

The exhibition at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale (November 12 to July 8, 2017) juxtaposes works from various periods of Stella’s career illuminating his recurring aesthetic interests over time. It includes items from his “working archive” that have never been exhibited, such as notes, sketches, and models, offering new perspectives to his work and his path as an artist. Stella’s diverse interests include art history, philosophy, literature, music, architecture, new materials (fluorescent pigment, carbon fiber, titanium, et al.), and computer-aided modeling for rapid prototyping, all represented in this exhibition.

Born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, to a physician father and artistic mother, Stella belongs to a generation of artists excited, driven, and challenged by the art of the abstract expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), and Franz Kline (1919-1962). Stella majored in history at Princeton University with a focus on Early Christian art. Although Princeton did not offer a studio art program at the time, he took informal art classes with art historian William Seitz and a credited art class with the artist Stephen Greene. Stella made his mark quickly after he moved to New York in 1958. His breakout Black paint- ings—regulated black enamel bands connected by the thin lines of raw canvas that fill the void between them—were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, when he was twenty-three. MoMA subsequently organized his first retrospective, in 1970, and another in 1987. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, presented the most recent retrospective of Stella’s work.

Stella has arranged the works in this exhibition to create a dialogue back and forth across time (rather than chronologically or by series). The show reveals Stella’s ideas about the logic of how his work developed over the years, in that he now can see the inevitability of the choices he made.


Freedom of Expression


This Frank Stella exhibition is part of the museum’s Regeneration Series, recent and forthcoming exhibitions designed to explore the wide-ranging impact of World War II on artists in Europe and the United States. Stella’s works are grounded in the postwar philosophical shift that positioned artists as masters of their existence, an attitude that was popularized through the zeitgeist of existential philosophy, phenomenology, and the study of perception.

Stella belongs to the first wave of American artists to emerge after World War II, along with Dan Flavin (1933- 1996), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Donald Judd (1928-1994), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) Robert Rauschenberg (1925- 2008), and Andy Warhol (1928-1987). During this postwar period, the Soviet Bloc permitted only Social Realism in the arts, and in the United States Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to root out Communism targeted avant-garde artists, writers, performers, and intellectuals.

Freedom of Expression was the title of the exhibition of Princeton University’s art students in the spring of 1958 that included Stella’s work. The review of this show by Thomas A. Carnicelli in the Daily Princetonian noted, “It is to the credit of [Princeton University] art instructor Stephen Greene that he has allowed his students full freedom of expression while inducing in them a real concern for artistic control.”

To this day, Stella contends that art offers at least the illusion of ultimate freedom, but that to a certain extent, his own point of entry into the continuum of history determined his motivations and goals as well as his outlook on life. Stella’s contemplation of the tug-of-war between determinism and free will is reflected in the references he makes in a number of his titles for works to the eighteenth- century philosopher Denis Diderot, author of Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, a tale that challenges the conventions of narration and pits the preordained against the exercise of free will. Diderot found it difficult to reconcile his overall conviction that the rules of the universe determined the progress of humankind with his moral belief that incentives could bring about positive change in people for the social good. The principles of Modernism –– namely, the prevailing philosophical position that humankind was constantly advancing –– potentially limited Stella’s options. In the U.S., abstract expressionism was recognized as an advance over representational painting and the international art style after World War II was overwhelmingly abstract. Stella knew he was fated to work within this narrative, and that the rules of modern art effectively preordained the end result––pure painting on a flat canvas. Stella, nevertheless, has constantly exercised his free will within these parameters to experiment, produce paradoxes, and bring about change in his work.