American painter and sculptor Frank Stella started his artistic career in New York city in the 50s and 60s during the dominant Zeitgeist of Abstract Expressionism and rebelled against its passionate brushstrokes and highly psychologized aesthetic in the favour of a unique Minimalist style with simple compositions of exuberant color and precise geometry that he has since made his trademark. “What you see is what you see.” Frank Stella’s simple words capture his philosophy and make him one of the most heralded artists in history.
Born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts he received a privileged education at the Phillips Academy, where he first encountered the abstract oeuvres of Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman that served as his primary creative inspirations. Following his graduation from Princeton University, Stella settled in New York City in 1958 without a specific plan in mind, in his words: “I wasn’t thinking of becoming an artist. I just wanted to make things and paint for a while.”
Even at such an early stage of his career, he decidedly rejected the then dominant Abstract Expressionist movement, but instead paid attention to painters Barnett Newman and Jaspers Johns, who were primarily interested in colour. Stella saw the purpose of a painting in being an object, “a flat surface with paint on it, nothing more”, instead of something representative carrying a higher meaning. This also meant a diversion from common painting techniques of first creating sketch – Stella painted completely freehand and often used mere house paint.
In this spirit he began creating a series of paintings in 1959 using only black paint on unpainted canvas, which immediately received positive recognition within the New York art scene. One of his most iconic works, Die Fahne Hoch! (The Raised Banner) also belongs to this series, which refers to the anthem of the NAZI party in Germany and features the same proportions of colour as the organization’s flag, while also possibly referencing Jasper John’s flag paintings. A year later, four paintings from this body of work were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Sixteen Americans, making Stella into a prominent artist and the pioneering figure of a fresh Minimalist style, all before the age of 25.
In 1960, he had his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery. Stella started producing an increasingly complex series of works, the Aluminum series, which mark his first experimentations with introducing more color, as well as shaping the canvases into various geometrical shapes, abandoning the traditional square and rectangle format. These irregular canvases continued in his Copper Paintings in 1960-61. Towards the late 60s, he expanded his color palette even further in the famous Protractor series, which featured striking, sometimes even fluorescent colors and various full and half circles and geometric shapes. Among these is his famous work Harran II from 1967, getting its title from an ancient circular city in the Middle East. He also developed an interest in printmaking and started collaborating with the prominent master printer Kenneth Tyler, resulting in a series of innovative, abstract prints using a range of methods including etching, lithography and screen-printing.
His painting evolved into increasingly sculptural forms, which started to be referred to as a Maximalist style because of its added three-dimensional elements such as plywood, paper and other materials. He still didn’t see these works as being of a different medium, but instead claimed that sculpture was” just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere." His ventures continued with the set and costume design for Scramble (1967), a dance performance choreographed by Merce Cunningham, featuring moveable striped banners recalling his earlier striped paintings
In 1970, he was the youngest artist ever to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Stella’s works during this decade featured and vibrant palette with curvilinear shapes, exuberant colours and signature scribble-like brushstrokes. As a fan of car racing, he undertook a project with BMW in 1976 painting a model for the La Mans race taking place that year. This influenced the creation of a later print series, Circuits, in 1980s, with the piece individually named after the famous race track.
In the 1980s, Stella created a series dedicated to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, each piece named after a chapter in the classic novel. The approx. 260 works created between 1985 and 1997 ranged from large-scale sculptural pieces to mixed-media paintings and prints. He also started making more public artworks in the 90s, such as a large-scale mural and all decorations for the Princess of Wales theatre in Toronto in 1993 and Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, 3X (1998–2001) in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Throughout the 90s he created more freestanding sculptural and architectural pieces such as the famous Raft of the Medusa (Part II) in 1990. Since the late 90s and 2000s, Stella has been using new technologies such as computer design and 3D printing for his artworks.
Some of his subsequent solo exhibitions include Frank Stella: Painting into Architecture, at the Met Museum in New York in 2007, Inflated Star and Wood Star, at the Royal Academy in London in 2015, Frank Stella: A Retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2016 and Frank Stella: Recent Work, showing his sculptural pieces at Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York in 2019. Stella’s Minimalist and post-painterly style is cited as an inspiration for generations of important artists and architects such as Sol Lewitt, Carl Andre and Frank Gehry. He is undeniably one of the most influential artists working today.