By Sandra Schulman
As the last of his generation of art history-defining artists left alive, 81-year-old Frank Stella zipped around the opening of his eye-popping mind- and line-blowing show at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale like a kid in a candy store.
Except this candy store holds seven decades’ worth of work that challenged, chastened, chug-a-lugged and ultimately changed the way the world looked at art and its possibilities.
Frank Stella: Experiment and Change is an unexpected exhibition in that it takes up the entire two floors of the museum with 300 paintings, relief sculpture and drawings that show the arc of his path from brushy minimalism — as shown in the loose geometry of the Black Paintings to maximalism — the spatially intruding explosions of the Moby Dick sculpture series. It’s a bold move by curator Bonnie Clearwater, one that pays off in visual spades.
It’s not billed as a retrospective but as an “experiment in change,” showing the creative process in all its zig-zaggy forms, from notes, sketches and maquettes (a personal favorite) that shine a light on his growth as an artist. While Stella’s diverse interests include art history, architecture, unusual materials (fluorescent pigment, carbon fiber, titanium, wire) and computer-aided modeling for rapid prototyping, his preparatory studies show the ideas in his head that became work that burst into space.
Stella started his career pretty much at the top, exhibiting with uber-dealer Leo Castelli and showing at the Museum of Modern Art when he was only 23 in 1958. He then had a “retrospective” at MoMA in 1970, and another in 1987. He was still working part-time as a house painter, using those clean, exacting techniques to create the geometric paintings that would come to define him.
The work is not exhibited chronologically, but rather in a series of hops, skips and jumps that create a dialogue across time and mind. The brushy early paintings such as Perfect Day For Banana Fish (1958) at the entrance shows Stella still working heavily in the manner of contemporary Jasper Johns. The Black Paintings get closer to his thin white line geometrics, and the huge “Ah ha!” moment comes with the larger concentric square paintings (1973).
The radiating beauty of these squares just fascinates the eye, pushing vison perception in and out with some squares in neon colors, others in black and white and gray. The use of blank canvas in between the squares is startling, with thin visible lines of pencil marking the outlines. This singular choice is made with a pencil and ruler, a marked departure from the norm of “priming” a canvas with a back wash of color.
The heart of the exhibit on the ground floor is a stunner – two enormous works, both from 1970, are shown together here for the first time. Agua Caliente and Deauville were titled for the well-known thoroughbred race horse tracks. On elongated oval-shaped canvases (another ground shattering choice), the paintings are 50 feet long by 10 feet high and placed back to back on a specially built wall. The bold solid radiating colors are pure pop joy, defining how everything from fonts to fashion would look that decade.
Stella says he was inspired by the width of the human peripheral vision. How these were even made is a marvel in itself. A 50-foot-long canvas won’t fit on an easel or even a non-average studio wall. They were painted by hand. How they ever even got out of the studio and into the world, surviving 47 years in such immaculate shape, is another miracle.
Walking the length of these works, watching how the shapes shift, enlarge and recede is just sublime. While Agua Caliente is permeated with blood red, persimmon and green, Deauville radiates in black, mint green and purple. The rounded shape of the canvases makes these a whole other thing in itself. Stella has spoken of the problem of “leftover space.” Making an oval painting on a rectangular canvas would have inadvertently created that.
Soon all his canvases were working geometric shape territory with concentric triangles and odd jutting angles thrusting their way out the confines of the square canvas, unlike artist contemporary Mark Rothko, who continued to work his color fields in a square.
Where to go from here? For Stella, the color shapes needed to push out from the wall itself, so his series of sculptures that he referred to more as “relief paintings,” were born. The Polish Village series (1971-74), which represent Stella’s first constructed relief paintings, are his attempt to “build” a painting and then paint it. Exploding in 3-D, this series started with cardboard and segued into metal. The charming maquettes on the second floor show these large pieces in a smaller scale, before they were cut, cast, welded and made much larger.
The second floor is given over mostly to the Hooloomooloo paintings (early 1990s) made for the Kawamura Museum in Japan. The entire series of these paintings is exhibited, creating a continuous frieze that starts on a long curved wall and ends high above the atrium. The irregular shapes of these paintings were determined by the architectural space of the Japanese museum. Painted, printed, collaged and reliefed, this wild hair work is swarming with color and architecture.
The back gallery rooms contain dozens of drawings, many rarely if ever exhibited. Stella himself arranged the drawings in a full-blown salon style, stacked up and down and across the walls of the gallery. They show a mind constantly at work and at odds with the constrictions of space and materials. It’s math and science and art and architecture all whirling in his methodical genius brain.
Stella himself was a spry, welcoming presence at the opening Sunday, grinning and posing for pictures in between darting outside to the courtyard for puffs on his cigar. Shouts of “congratulations!” and bursts of spontaneous applause greeted him throughout the evening.
Much less formal than his 2015 retrospective at the new Whitney in lower Manhattan, Stella said, “This show is large but also relaxed. We picked out things that interest me, that maybe I haven’t shown so much. There’s quite a bit of work but it’s different than other exhibitions that I’ve had in that it has incidental work too, like models and drawings.
“It shows what people like to call the process, through things never shown before for the simple reason that I didn’t want to show them — and nobody else wanted to show them either,” he said. “And it’s also something about having work that you like to keep to yourself, that you think about and like to shuffle around.”
Frank Stella “believes that art offers at least the illusion of ultimate freedom. In the context of the art world, he appears fearless and indifferent to risk. Even works that initially looked like misfits to him (and others) now appear revelatory in light of his most recent pursuits,” Clearwater said.
It’s a true once-in-a-lifetime show, not to be missed and up through July 2018.
Frank Stella: Experiment and Change runs through July 8 at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is $12; seniors and military $8; students (with valid ID) $5. Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Thursday of every month; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Call 954-525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org for more information.