One of the most important artists of the last century, the formidable Frank Stella is currently the subject of a major retrospective at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. A rule breaker whose style has consistently evolved over the the decades, Stella is known for his revolutionary approach to materials as well as his continued exploration of color, form, dimension, and architecture.
We’ve selected a few of the artist’s pieces to illustrate what curators have called his “groundbreaking” and “aggressive” use of color, and how it has evolved over his sixty-year career.
Stella began as a house and boat painter to pay the rent, and used the same commercial brushes and enamel paints in some of his early work. He painted East Broadway soon after moving to New York City in 1958. The abstracted black and yellow stripes suggest New York taxis, a color scheme that is part of the city’s urban fabric. From early on in his career, Stella stretched his paint to the very edges of the canvas, thus highlighting the lack of frame or margin.
Stella’s Black Paintings series are devoid of illusion or representation. “The idea was to make paintings that were available to eyesight alone. Direct,” the artist said in an interview with The Whitney Museum. “So it was a kind of like a visual imprint. When you saw something, you reacted to it. Like giving feelings to your eyesight.” Deliberately non-representational, the Black Paintings had no “hidden” meaning. The artist famously said of them “What you see is what you see.”
The black series was not universally well-received; many critics hated them. The artist noted, “There’s a lot of difference between being well-known and being notorious. The black paintings didn’t make me well-known – they made me notorious.”
An early example of Stella’s color field paintings, Gran Cairo explores color in geometric form, a theme he evolved over time.
In Marrakech, Stella makes use of vibrant color to explore the optical impact of two hues placed close together. The bands of yellow and orange seem to bend or contract when seen directly next to each other.
Eventually, Stella began to work with more rounded shapes, as in The Protractor Series. Named after an ancient Mesopotamian city in what is now Turkey, Harran II is an early reference by Stella to architectural forms, Michael Auping explains. The first artist to use day glow and florescent paints, Stella worked with forms based on the shape of a protractor. The colored circles appear to roll through static squares.
Color remained important as Stella began to blur the distinction between painting and sculpture. Stella used color to add depth as his work became increasingly three- dimensional. The artist’s use of color challenged our notion of how color behaves both on the canvas and in sculptural form, drawing connections between painting, architecture, and movement. Frank Stella: A Retrospective is on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum through February 26, 2017.