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Stella style. (Looking & Learning).

About the Artist

Frank Stella was born in a blue-collar town near Boston, Massachusetts. As a youngster, he was a "wild, street-smart wise guy," but in high school, he became interested in art and painting as well as wrestling and lacrosse. He studied art history at Princeton University and continued painting even though there was no formal studio arts program there.

During one of his frequent trips to New York to visit galleries and museums, Stella saw an exhibition of flag and target paintings by Jasper Johns, and he began to explore the possibilities of painting squares, rectangles, and ragged stripes. Immediately upon graduating in 1958, Stella moved to New York because, as he said, "If you're going to be a painter, New York is the best place to do it." In 1959, when he was only 23 years old, Stella was invited to be one of the artists in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Sixteen Americans. There he exhibited what would become known later as the Black Paintings. These early works, consisting of black paint on raw canvas which emphasized control and rationalism, forged new ground in abstract art and had a profound influence on the younger generation of artists who would later be labeled Minimalists. This was the beginning of what would prove to be years of exploration for the young artist, during which he would investigate the very nature of painting just as a scientist searches for a solution to a problem.

Sketch Les Indes Galantes

In the 1960s Stella explored the regularity and logic of grids and mazes, which afforded him an array of lines, shapes, and geometric patterns on which to build. He usually made paintings in series exploring many variations of one format. From 1962-63, Stella worked on a series of paintings based on mitered angles that form a square. As with his earlier work, the shapes of the paintings themselves were determined by the format of the lines and bars, but his choice of title seems to suggest other associations. The title of this work refers to Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes galantes, which Stella described as "a Frenchman's idea of the new world." The black-and-white palette alludes to the harpsichord keyboard, but also aims to capture the rhythmic, ordered sense of Rameau's music.

Take a Closer Look

--What shape(s) did Stella repeat in this painting? Can you determine the degrees of the angles in this painting? Using the same shape(s) and angles as the artist, can you design a variation of this format?

--There has been much debate over Stella's assertion that his paintings are nothing more than paint on a canvas and whether the possible associations that can be made through the titles contradict this. What do you think? Are they representational or symbolic of underlying ideas? Or are there no other meanings beyond what you see?

Evolving Style

Frank Stella's earlier style was focused on paintings that were stripped down to essentials. He wanted to show that no matter what its subject or expressive content, a painting is nothing more than canvas stretched over a frame with pigments applied to its surface. It is an object in and of itself. A number of artists in the late 1950s--sculptors as well as painters--were interested in these ideas.

Damascus Gate Stretch Variation

In the late 1960s Stella's paintings of bars and lines became more complex, as did the shapes of his canvases. He created a series of room-sized paintings based on the semicircular shape of a protractor. Stella went from painting with single colors to industrial Day-Glo paint. The shapes and patterns all continued to be part of a complicated system that also determined the form of the canvas. The titles for this series refer to ancient Islamic cities with circular plans which he visited on a trip to the Middle East in 1963.

Take a Closer Look

--Look for one complete protractor shape in Damascus Gate Stretch Variation. Describe how it changes color and position.

--What about this painting makes it more complicated than the earlier work?

--What can you see in this painting that connects to its title?

Loomings 3x

Through the 1970s, Stella worked on a series of irregular polygon reliefs constructed of wood named for Polish villages. The size of these paintings made them so heavy that Stella realized he needed to work with a different material. He began to use aluminum sheets for his paintings/constructions. The flexibility of this light metal led him to create works using dynamic three-dimensional forms based on the drafting tools called French curves, and the shapes of waves. He had gone with his children to see beluga whales in the aquarium in Coney Island. The whales and the waves came together in this series titled for each of the 135 chapters in the novel Moby Dick.

At the beginning of Stella's career, his credo was "only what can be seen there is there." But 29 years later with Loomings 3x, a billowing wave form with a title drawn from a classic of American literature, his work seems full of association and connections with the outside world.

Take a Closer Look

Despite their three-dimensionality, Stella's artworks have always been described as paintings. What do you see in Loomings 3x that makes it a painting? What makes it more sculptural? What other art techniques are used in this work?

Style in art refers to works that share certain characteristics, including visual elements such as color, shape, or composition. A particular style can occur at a certain time or place or in the work of a single artist or a group. Using these criteria, make a list of the ways that Stella's work from 1962 to 1986 maintained a single style and/or changed to a new style. Do you think this artist's later work is the same style as his earlier work, or do you think he is working in a new style?

Susan Rotilie is the associate director of School/Tours/ Family Programs at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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Title Annotation:Frank Stella
Author:Rotilie, Susan
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2003
Previous Article:Travel through time.
Next Article:Influence and style: appropriation. (GalleryCard.

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