In memoriam | Frank Stella

Frank Philip Stella | Malden | Massachusett | 1936-2024

Frank Stella was an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker, noted for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction.
Stella born to first-generation Italian-American parents, was the oldest of their three children. His father was a gynecologist, and his mother was a housewife and artist who attended fashion school and later took up landscape painting.
In his sophomore year of high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, the abstractionist Patrick Morgan, a teacher at the school, began teaching Stella how to paint. After entering Princeton University to earn a degree in history, Stella took art courses and was introduced to the New York art scene by painter Stephen Greene and art historian William Seitz, professors at the school who brought him to exhibitions in the city. His work was influenced by abstract expressionism. He is heralded for having created abstract paintings that bear no pictorial illusions or psychological or metaphysical references in twentieth-century painting.
Upon moving to New York City, he began to produce works which emphasized the picture-as-object.
Stella created a series of paintings in 1958-1959 known as his “Black Paintings” which flouted conventional ideas of painterly composition. Using commercial enamel paint and a house-painter’s brush, he painted black stripes of the same width and evenly spaced on bare canvas, leaving the thin strips of canvas between them unpainted and exposed, along with his pencil-and-ruler drawn guidelines.
Stella repudiated all efforts by critics to interpret his work, dismissing them with his well-known tautology, “What you see is what you see”, which became “the unofficial motto of the minimalist movement”, according to the New York Times.
Stella married Barbara Rose, later a well-known art critic, in 1961. Around this time he said that a picture was “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more”. In 1978 he married pediatrician Harriet McGurk.
In 1959, several of his paintings were included in “Three Young Americans” at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, as well as in “Sixteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the same year.
From 1960 his works used shaped canvases, developing in 1966 into more elaborate designs, as in the Irregular Polygon series.
In 1967, Stella began his Protractor Series of paintings, which feature arcs, sometimes overlapping, within square borders named after circular cities he had visited while in the Middle East earlier in the 1960s.
In 1967, Stella designed the set and costumes for Scramble, a dance piece by Merce Cunningham.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a retrospective of Stella’s work in 1970, making him the youngest artist to receive one.
In the next decade, Stella brought to his artistic productions the element of relief, which he called “maximalist” painting because it had sculptural attributes. He presented wood and other materials in his Polish Village series, executed in high relief. Through the 1970s and 1980s, as these works became more uninhibited and intricate, his Minimalism became baroque. In 1976, Stella was commissioned by BMW to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL for the second installment in the BMW Art Car Series. He said of this project, “The starting point for the art cars was racing livery. The graph paper is what it is, a graph, but when it’s morphed over the car’s forms it becomes interesting. Theoretically it’s like painting on a shaped canvas”.
In 1969, Stella was commissioned to create a logo for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial.
From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, Stella produced a large oeuvre that grappled with Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick in a broad way. To generate these, the artist made collages or scale models that were subsequently enlarged to the original’s specifications by his assistants. In 1993, he created the entire decorative scheme for Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, which includes a 10,000-square-foot mural. In 1997, he oversaw the installation of the 5,000-square-foot Euphonia at the Moores Opera House at the Rebecca and John J. Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, in Houston, Texas. A monumental sculpture of his, titled Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, ein Schauspiel, 3x [D#8], 2001, was installed outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The titles for Stella’s Scaralatti Sonata Kirkpatrick series were triggered by the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti.
From 1978 to 2005, Stella owned the Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart building in Manhattan’s East Village and used it as his studio which resulted in the facade being restored. After a six-year campaign by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in 2012 the historic building was designated a New York City Landmark. After 2005, Stella split his time between his West Village apartment and his Newburgh, New York studio.
By the turn of the 2010s, Stella started using the computer as a painterly tool to produce stand-alone star-shaped sculptures. The resulting stars are often monochrome, black or beige or naturally metallic, and their points can take the form of solid planes, spindly lines or wire-mesh circuits. His Jasper’s Split Star (2017), a sculpture constructed out of six small geometric grids that rest on an aluminum base, was installed at 7 World Trade Center in 2021.

Throughout his career, Stella’s influence extended far beyond the confines of the canvas. He embraced sculpture, printmaking, and even ventured into architectural projects, demonstrating a remarkable versatility and a restless spirit of inquiry. His collaborations with architects and designers yielded monumental works that integrated seamlessly into the built environment, blurring the lines between art and architecture.
Stella’s impact on the art world was profound and enduring. His work has been celebrated in countless exhibitions and retrospectives, including major showcases at esteemed institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art. He received numerous awards and honors throughout his lifetime, cementing his status as one of the preeminent artists of his generation.
Beyond his artistic achievements, Stella was known for his intellect, wit, and unwavering commitment to his craft. He approached each new project with a sense of curiosity and fearlessness, unafraid to challenge convention and explore uncharted territory. His legacy is not only a testament to his creative vision but also a reminder of the transformative power of art to inspire, provoke, and transcend boundaries.
Frank Stella’s profound impact on the realm of geometric abstraction is an essential aspect of his artistic legacy. His relentless exploration and deep engagement with geometric forms transcended mere aesthetic concerns, revolutionizing the very language of abstract art.
At the heart of Stella’s geometric abstraction lies a fascination with the fundamental building blocks of form and space. He approached geometry not merely as a visual motif but as a means of probing the underlying structures of reality itself. Through his meticulous arrangements of lines, shapes, and colors, Stella sought to distill complex spatial relationships into their purest essence, inviting viewers to contemplate the inherent order and harmony of the universe.
Stella’s geometric compositions are marked by a rigorous precision and clarity of vision. Each element is carefully calibrated and meticulously arranged, creating a sense of mathematical purity and architectural solidity. Yet, within this formal rigor, there is also a palpable sense of dynamism and energy, as shapes intersect and overlap, suggesting movement and flux.
One of Stella’s most groundbreaking contributions to geometric abstraction was his rejection of the idea of the canvas as a passive surface. Instead, he treated it as an active field of exploration, pushing the boundaries of two-dimensional space to create works that are at once flat and sculptural. His use of unconventional materials such as aluminum and fiberglass further blurred the distinction between painting and sculpture, challenging traditional notions of medium and technique.
Moreover, Stella’s geometric abstraction was not static or monolithic but evolved over time, reflecting his restless spirit of experimentation and innovation. From the early “Black Paintings” to the later “Concentric Squares” and “Mitered Mazes,” his work continually pushed the boundaries of what geometric abstraction could encompass, embracing new forms, colors, and spatial configurations.
Frank StellafIn essence, Frank Stella’s exploration of geometric abstraction transcended mere formalism to become a deeply philosophical inquiry into the nature of perception, space, and reality itself. His work remains a testament to the enduring power of abstraction to evoke profound emotions, stimulate intellectual inquiry, and expand the horizons of human understanding.