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Frank Stella: A Retrospective At NYC's Whitney Museum Of American Art
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Frank Stella: A Retrospective At NYC's Whitney Museum Of American Art

Picture of Doug Hall
Updated: 12 December 2015
As Frank Stella turns 80 next year, a world – who knows him as the peerless modern painter, innovator and pivotal influence to generations of artists after him, – will come together with a world that may not know him yet. But both will be amazed and knocked-out visually by some of the most known, groundbreaking and bold works by this seminal artist of the 20th century. Here, we explore an exhibition of Stella’s vast collection of art featured at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City this fall/winter.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has bravely taken on and extensively strutted-out the most major pieces by this fiercely individualistic artist, as Stella stands out on his own – with still brash and explosive two and three dimensional work, giving the museum public a well-deserved and overdue retrospective. A five year production in the making, with over 95 works of art from 26 different series spanning six decades, gives back serious attention to one of the contenders of modern art, represented in this expansive retrospective that just opened on October 30th.

Abstract expressionism took the NYC art world by storm in the 1940s with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline leading an experiment with spontaneity, action painting and rebellious anti-figurative representations of art. Frank Stella would later, in the 1950s, step out of this movement and start another, along with Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg. What you see on these walls are pioneering and radical transitions, from the early minimalist period of Stella’s work, with his Black Paintings and Black, Cooper and Aluminum series, featuring parallel stripes and darkness and emerging layers. Later the Irregular Polygon series abandons the confinement of frames and breaks into linear, protractor-like, intersecting lines and curves, all with wonderful bright Day-Glo colors of Pop Art. Then, it is onto huge dimensional paintings that ushered in a whole muscular blast of color and form – protruding out into the space of the viewer.

The list of ingredients is part chemistry lab and part junkyard. Stella introduces nontraditional ingredients of aluminum, plastics, wood from piping, metal from car doors, fiberglass siding, broken glass. This is all mixed with urethane enamel, lacquer, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic – inorganic and organic material – creating a dazzling three-dimensional effect.

Stella’s prolific production, also evidenced in his depth of approximately 26 series of two- and three-dimensional styles, speaks to his creativity, ideas and contribution. Facing this challenge, Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown director of the Whitney and Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s deputy director for programs and chief curator, had to address how to properly represent the vast range of this seminal artist’s work. At the press preview, on October 28th, Mr. Weinberg posed a question, almost as a challenge, ‘Why hasn’t someone done a retrospective on Frank Stella? It is a massive body of work. At least four generations of artists have entered Frank’s work along with six decades of commitment.’

The Whitney’s exceptionally talented team rose to the challenge and succeeded, with vital contributions recognizable from all. The management of gallery size, attention to exhibit detail and impeccable hanging of the smallest early minimalist paintings, to the large multi-dimensional protruding collage pieces of ten feet by ten feet, are testament to the museum putting to fantastic use the space of their new super-sized gallery exhibit area. (The Whitney just re-opened its doors this past May of 2015, fronting a newly modernist building with glass and grey aluminum design, architecturally enormous with 220 thousand square feet, and a 422 million dollar investment).

Stella’s world takes us on a historical trip of modern art making – from his early influence from a master teacher, Hans Hoffman, who would influence a whole school of abstract expressionism in NYC in the 1950s, to Stella’s intense drive throughout studio art classes at Princeton University, and his arrival upon a blossoming art scene in NYC in 1958, surrounded by a hotbed of painters, artists, performers, writers and musicians. Abstract expressionists’ artwork was still the center of attention in galleries in Greenwich Village and Soho. But Stella did not falter and remained in over-drive, first starting a studio out of an old jewelry shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in the bull’s eye of creative action. His fierce personal and professional determination and individualism would see him make his mark.

Stella, from the very beginning, as stated in the Whitney press release, ‘began a profound engagement with art making,’ from multilayered, minimalist pieces that force contrast to the eye, to geometrical polygon visualizations that leave the boxed frame canvas behind, to mixed media three-dimensional projection assemblage that reaches out to you, and onto current work, incorporating entanglements of sculptured bent tubing, stainless steel and aluminum with fiber, that provoke you with their physical size. Here is one man’s incredible collection of artistic statements spanning six decades. As said by the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Chief Curator Scott Rothkopf, ‘this is an artist who is not nor has ever been on auto-pilot.’

Come see this seminal modern artist’s legacy in the grandeur and open space that the Whitney Museum of American Art offers you to fully appreciate the magnitude, range and power of Stella’s work. As one of the most influential modern artists of our time who, as re-emphasized by Chief Curator Scott Rothkopf, ‘avoided at all costs an easy or elegant solution’ to his work or direction in art – it will not leave you in neutral.

As you explore these provocative paintings, keep the artist’s own words in mind. ‘There are two problems in painting. One is to find out what painting is and the other is to find out how to make a painting. The first is learning something and the second is making something.’

Frank Stella: A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, October 30, 2015 – February 7, 2016

Find more surprises for your appetite at The Culture Trip New York.