For 60 years, Frank Stella has been one of the most influential artists in America. An innovator in abstract, minimalist and geometric painting, Stella moved on to experiment with exuberant color, sculpture, drawing, print-making and large architectural installation.
Part of a generation following in the footsteps of Pollack and Rothko, Stella’s minimalist Black Paintings were featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York when he was the astonishingly young age of 23. Only a decade later, in 1970, MOMA would mount a retrospective of his work.
And that, it seemed, was only the beginning. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of Art mounted another Stella retrospective, by then surveying a hugely diverse body of work. Deborah Solomon wrote in the New York Times at the time, “Mr. Stella has done more than any other living artist to carry abstract art, the house style of modernism, into the postmodern era.”
So imagine what a treat it is that some 300 of these works are showcased on two sprawling floors of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, in “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change.” While the exhibit includes pieces from 1958 to the present, the works are not presented in chronological order. As a result, the show doesn’t feel as much a retrospective as a trip through a dizzying study of color schemes, geometric designs, perspective and space.
“I don’t need to show the ‘most important’ works,” he said during installation of the Fort Lauderdale show. “I want it to be as unrepetitive as I possibly can.”
That helps explain what you won’t see here — the minimalist Black Paintings that first earned him national acclaim.
Instead, Stella, now 81, utilizes the generous spaces of the museum to encourage visitors to view his work from different angles and perspectives, “from series from different eras that talk to each other.” By not focusing on specific acclaimed works, viewers see them “where you are situated in the space, turning in a circle … and seeing something that you like.”
Initially at least, what many people will like are the Mitered Maze and Concentric Square paintings from the 1960s, depicting bands painted in vibrant colors within decreasingly smaller squares. The effect, when looking into the center, is to see a receding tunnel, or, conversely, an emerging pyramid. It’s an optical illusion. According to museum director Bonnie Clearwater, while the eye thinks the bands are getting smaller along with the squares, the width in fact remains the same. The mind sees a 3-D painting where only two dimensions exist.
Stella’s full body of works will make you twist and turn, but he is not about trickery. Although impressed by his older peers who pioneered abstract expressionism, Stella turned away from emotion-packed flourishes of brush stokes. He also rejected representational art that drew the viewer into a narrative.
Of his paintings, he famously said, “what you see is what you see.” His abstract geometric forms, colors and perspective were the essence of the work. No extra story here.
But as Clearwater points out, Stella was not actually a minimalist but an experimenter painting in a way that had not been done before. In the 1960s, Stella broadened out from the linear structures of squares, rectangles and triangles to asymmetric forms and eventually to the softer, if still geometric patterning, of circles and ovals.
In the Fort Lauderdale show, you can see it in the Irregular Polygon series, with gorgeous color fields covering the large canvases in shapes resembling jagged jig-saw puzzles. If you have seen any of these pieces only in print or online, you’ll be amazed at how they command the space, and demand your eye’s attention.
Then there are the samplings from the magnificent Protractor series. Protractors, those measuring instruments that create images of semi circles or half-discs, became the thematic girding for these semi-circular, ribbon-like paintings, made between 1967 and 1970. Stella named these works for classic cities of the Islamic world, after a trip where he discovered the circular pathways and design of these cities. The curves, arches and the gentle coloring are exquisite and subtly reference the geometric-based art of the Islamic world, and maybe also the symbol of the crescent moon.
As the decades passed, Stella’s work grew in size and became more elaborate. Although he always considered himself a painter, Stella began employing materials such as wood and metal. The pieces became more sculptural and more complex than his earlier, flat canvases. By the 1990s, he was creating computer-generated collages and architectural additions for buildings.
But through all his experiment and change, Stella fundamentally remains an artist devoted to form, to the beauty of the line, to the perpetual play with perception.
For the art aficionado, the rooms holding what Clearwater calls Stella’s “working archive,” will come as a delicious dessert. These are notes, maquettes, drawings and sketches, some of which have never been seen in public. They let us in on Stella’s philosophical journey and his love of history, music, architecture and literature.
The archive sheds light on the exhibit’s oldest work, from 1958. The powerful study in color and spatial illusion, titled “Perfect Day for Banana Fish,” refers to a a short and sad story from J.D. Salinger about a war veteran who commits suicide. But as Stella had early on scrapped the notion that his paintings held narratives, Clearwater suggests the title might just refer to the yellow color of the abstract work.
In the end, it is hard to put any label on Stella, as this expansive show proves. Clearwater says that although he helped forge the minimalist movement, six decades on he is really an artist “looking for maximal effect” — and delivering it.
If you go
What: “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change”
Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 East Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
When: Through July 8