Off the wall

Frank Stella fills the space between sculpture and painting

by Victoria James

“My most favorite artist? The problem with that question,” says Frank Stella, settling back in his chair, “is what’s the point of it?”

The frankly worshipful audience that’s gathered at the Iwate Museum of Art in Morioka City to hear New York-based artist Stella discuss his career and new work is audibly taken aback. Some people even look nervous — this is, after all, only the first question Stella’s been asked, and it should have been a breeze, a gentle warm-up.

“I can give you an answer,” he continues imperturbably, in a confident, humorous voice. “It’ll make you wonder: Correggio. You’d have to go to Parma, to look at the paintings. You see, he’s very different from Michelangelo, although with the same level of intensity. It doesn’t quite add up, which makes it very interesting.”

Much the same could be said of Stella, now 67, who shot to fame in 1959 at age 23 when his work was included alongside that of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the exhibition “16 Americans” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His artistic career since then, which has included two retrospectives at MOMA (in 1970 and 1987, making him the only artist to have been so honored during his lifetime) is full of contradictions and challenges. And the intensity of his artistic vision has been appreciated around the world — not least in Japan, as demonstrated by the fact that the 31 pieces that comprise “Frank Stella,” a retrospective exhibition showing at IMA until Aug. 17, are all drawn from Japanese collections.

Critics have made much of Stella’s lack of formal art training — he studied medieval history at Princeton University — but it is clear that he came in contact early with the art trends of his day. “The high school that I went to had a very sophisticated program for making art,” he recalled. “There was only one requirement: a drawing or painting that everyone in the class had to do, and that was a still life. Once the teacher had accepted that, one way or the other, then you were allowed to do whatever you wanted. Some did more still life, others would paint squares, do abstracts.”

As an undergraduate he pursued his informal art education, joining a not-for-credit painting studio run by art historian and abstract painter William Seitz, and touring the galleries of New York where he saw the art of Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler. His thesis was on seventh- and eighth-century Celtic interlace patterns — with reference to the work of Jackson Pollock. The connection wasn’t an arbitrary one, he explained. “I found Celtic illumination interesting because historically it’s before the great development of Renaissance art. . . . It appealed to me as an ideal, perhaps as a way of not having to encounter the weight of Renaissance art.”

Celtic motifs have been turning up in Stella’s work ever since — a beautiful example, showing here, is 1968′s “Flin Flon II” — but it was avoiding “the weight of Renaissance art” that was, of course, the central artistic project of Stella’s generation. Historically, the great turning point of artistic development was the 14th-century introduction of perspective, which enabled the creation of “illusionistic space” on a two-dimensional canvas. The artists of the ’60s strove to overcome perspective — or go beyond it.

“The big issue of my time, the ’60s, was to make flat, abstract art. Abstract painting is essentially flat — look at Mondrian — it lacks illusion and it lacks space.

“Part of the result of the flatness of that art and the cut-out quality was to make the surface [of a painting] seem as an object, slightly levitating from the wall.”

A small but representative selection of works from Stella’s first decade, including a piece each from the breakthrough “Black Painting Series” (1959) and “Aluminum Series” (1960), show how effectively the artist’s works expressed those abstract aims. In them, as Stella once famously commented, “What you see is what you see.”

To emphasize the concept of the canvas as “object,” the artist used unusually deep stretchers underneath the canvas to exaggerate the painting’s physical depth. One effect, in his shaped paintings — such as “Tampa” and “Valparaiso Flesh” from 1963′s “Dartmouth Series” and “Quathlamba” from the “Notched V Series” (1964) — is a gathering of shadow in the nooks and corners of the canvases. These are a forcible (and unexpectedly beautiful) reminder of the painting’s identity as surface and object.

And then, during the 1970s, Stella’s interest turned from “object” to “gesture.” His art became increasingly three-dimensional — a bridging work shown here is “Bechhofen III” (1972), painted not onto canvas but onto board layered in different thicknesses so that it juts up to 23 cm from the wall. In “Shama” (1979), brightly painted coils and tendrils snake out from a curved, pastel-checkered aluminum background. By the 1980s, Stella’s work had completed its evolution into wall-mounted sculpture.

Stella reaches for props as he explains his concept of gesture to the Iwate audience. First, he pulls apart the flower arrangement on the table in front of him and holds up a stem.

“The conventional movement of the hand is a gesture. If you have this line [bends the stem into a trapezoid shape] this is also a gesture, but not a gesture of the hand. Rather it’s a gesture made by the hand which is forcing a physical thing into a form. If you were to have a mark made by the hand, that would be two-dimensional, but this gesture is automatically three-dimensional. Sculpture is like a frozen gesture.”

Talking his listeners through slide projections of his work-in-progress — principally pieces combining stainless steel tubing with cast elements, some wall-mounted, others suspended from the ceiling — Stella warms to his theme.

“These are a kind of drawing in space. But the material, the tubing, has a rigidity, so it holds together in a way that makes it a unit. . . . You can have work that’s either hung into space, or projected into space from the wall, or with conventional sculpture it sits on the ground and occupies the space. But what’s important is to have the sense of an active gesture.

“The notion of an active gesture is to have it be the opposite of a static object. You could suspend something from the ceiling, something simple, like a ball, or something interesting, like a chandelier, but it’d still have an object quality rather than a gestural quality.”

The form of one of the new works, a stainless-steel spiral that’s been pushed out into a hemispheric shape, seems vaguely familiar. As if on cue, Stella’s interviewer pulls from a plastic bag a foam baseball hat — it’s flat, but thanks to the spiral incisions cut into it, it shapes itself around the head when worn. The audience laughs with recognition, and Stella smiles. Then he crumples up the baseball hat, and its spokes bulge out in all directions. “This, too, can make a sculpture,” he says, as the audience ooohs and aaahs. Stella twists the hat into another shape as the schoolchildren in the front row sit up and take notice. “Anyone can do it.”

The hat tears.

But Stella’s point has been made. “Rather than occupying space, [these new pieces] are trying to create space. They’re animated, open, but not empty.”

I wonder what Stella thinks of contemporary digital art — virtual art and its disembodied creations, as practiced by Mariko Mori — or of the “superflat” anime-inspired work of Takashi Murakami, which combines representation with the hyper-flatness of abstraction. I ask him once the slide show is over.

There is the same pause that preceded his response to the “favorite artist” question and he replies, slowly, “I don’t talk about specific artists. That’s not . . . my cup . . . of tea.”

Then, as an aside: “Having said that, there are a lot of things that I think are very good, but I don’t like them. The more physical art is, the more I like it.”

He good-naturedly signs a final stack of catalogs for his fans and poses, grinning, for photos with the schoolgirls who doubtless didn’t know who he was a few hours ago, but who squealed enthusiastically through the exhibition galleries.

Then Stella sticks a huge cigar in his mouth, lights it, and strolls off. No more questions today, pointless or otherwise.