At the Modern, Young Abstract Art Star Frank Stella Transfixes in His First Retrospective Since 1987

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The latest exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth started with a simple question: Which great living artist had not had a retrospective in over two decades? Frank Stella has a 60-year career and is ingrained in contemporary art. A young art star, he actually had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when he was 34. But he has somehow managed to go nearly three decades without a review. Presented in conjunction with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where the exhibit originated, Frank Stella: A Retrospective opened over the weekend with 100 works that showcase the highlights of his career, keeping series together and showing the artist’s massive progression.

Back in the 1950s, Stella was working out of a small studio in New York City with the goal of being an abstract expressionist. But right away his logical approach to painting leaned more toward minimalism. Eschewing compositional issues that concerned painters before him, he was influenced by Jasper Johns’ paintings of flags. Stella was not interested in representational paintings, but liked the idea of painting something that was partially predetermined, and noticed how the flags were the shape of a canvas.

From 1958, “East Broadway” appears to be a deconstruction of Johns’ flag paintings. The stars are removed, leaving stripes that run across the painting, creating a simple, vertical composition. Another painting, “Great Jones Street,” appears to be a perfect fusion of Johns and Mark Rothko. Along with his classic black paintings series produced the same year, these early works capture Stella in a state of transition toward minimalism.

Stella used enamel paint from the hardware store, the cheapest stuff he could get. After working his way through college as a house painter, he retained the large brushstrokes and concerned himself not so much with the image, but the shape of the painted object. Instead of using a subconscious approach to creating abstract imagery, Stella chose a more pragmatic method. But the paintings retain the same atmospheric qualities and moodiness.

Based on drawings, Stella started to alter the shapes of his painted objects by making changes to the canvas, adding elements of sculpture with his aluminum copper series. From 1960, “Avicenna” uses shiny aluminum paint meant for radiators in lofts, creating industrial abstraction. He also cut a hole in the center of the canvas and carved all four corners. By the time he started using copper oil paint in the early '60s, Stella was cutting out so much of the canvas that there was more wall than painting, which added a focus on architecture.

In the early '60s, Stella also seemed to provide some influence on the popular colors of Pop Art with his Benjamin Moore series, named after the house paint company that was prominent for decades. Everyone used Benjamin Moore paint just like everyone ate Campbell’s soup. In fact, there are six miniature paintings from this series displayed here that were bought by Andy Warhol for $50 each. These square paintings experiment with geometrical lines and simple colors. One looks like a yellow notepad.
Stella was also one of the first artists to use fluorescent paint, exemplified by one of his best-known paintings, “Jasper’s Dilemma.” Over 50 years later, the paint holds up remarkably well, creating disjointed optical illusions that one could see a mile away. These are challenging paintings for viewers. The eye naturally goes to the center of these colorful mazes, but everything seems to fall out of balance when the movement is followed. These works can be looked at many different ways, but the human brain can only process one perspective at a time.

By the mid- to late-'60s, Stella’s paintings became even more architectural with his paintings of Polish villages and exotic birds, which are built as much as painted and resemble collages. These works do not have flat surfaces and they project from the walls. Not only are they more like objects than paintings, but they are also more specific. Stella would take the idea even further with a large series of paintings about Moby Dick, one for each of the book’s 135 chapters.
With paint on etched magnesium and aluminum, the Moby Dick series is mixed media work. These look like sculptures just as much as paintings, if not more so. But Stella is still manipulating his canvas, exploring the objects he paints just like a sculptor explores pictorial sensibilities. And after all, these works appear to be propped up on easels. With brushstrokes that seem to represent waves, this is some of Stella’s most densely layered, abstract imagery. The work is in such stark contrast to his early minimalist work that some refer to it as “maximalist.”

Stella’s more recent works were created with computer imagery often inspired by the smoke coming out of his cigar. These are constructed with bent tubing, stainless steel, aluminum and fiberglass — often without paint. These works are enormous and whimsical, sometimes inspired by found objects in Stella’s current studio, which is one square acre. Stella also made many drawings and digital images he created as blueprints available for this exhibit. A good way to end the tour, they provide valuable insight into his creative process.

Frank Stella: A Retrospective is on view at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., through September 18.

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