Frank Stella by Saul Ostrow

BOMB 71 Spring 2000
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Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Frank Stella, Bandshell (Model), 1999, fiberglass, 12 feet x 14 feet 6 inches × 15 inches. All images courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York.

At the end of his workday, I met with Frank Stella in his studio/factory. We sat—he in a chaise and me in an armchair—in the middle of his cavernous second floor. There in the ever dimming late-afternoon light, surrounded by his newest works—comparatively small to mid-sized painted wall reliefs and large-scale collages of computer generated images—we spoke of his views and attitude toward his work, both past and present. What emerges is a portrait of an artist who, for 40 years, has aggressively worked to maintain and reinvigorate abstract painting. What this has meant for Stella is that not only has he expanded upon his own historicized work of the late ’50s through the ’70s—work that turned abstract painting into ‘a thing in the world’ rather than pictures or signs of thoughts or emotions—but that he also opened for himself a new conceptual and visual space. In recent years this has led him to use digital media’s ability to abstract, reproduce and concretize the ephemeral and the temporal, transforming smoke into phantasmagoric images and forms. These virtual and schematic elements he pictorially combines into intense optical fields ordered by their materiality and their sensuousness, or he makes them into 3-D elements for his wall reliefs and sculptures. In the last two decades, his commitment to literal rather than pictorial space has lead Stella to an involvement with not only sculpture but architecture.

Saul Ostrow A lot of young painters I know were blown away by your show two years ago of big, flat paintings. What’s it like painting against your own history?

Frank Stella It’s not a big deal. It’s not my history. It’s the same history that it’s always been—the history of art. Whether it’s about me or Picasso or Lascaux, it’s all the same to me.

SO I don’t mean from the studio point of view, but literally, in terms of what art historians and critics say about you.

FS It’s not an issue anymore. When you’re looking ahead, I guess it’s a problem, but when you’re looking ahead and it’s not very far, you can’t really worry about those other things. Time is what you have left; you just march with it and use it the best you can.

SO I’m writing the essay for your painting Die Marquise von O. at the Boydington Gallery in Nottingham. I’ve been looking at this 12-inch reproduction of a painting that’s 47 feet long. In writing about Marquise, I’ve thought about it in terms of continuity and rupture. What elements carry through from your previous work and where does it rupture with the past? Do you think about it in those terms?

FS I’m not trying to be difficult, but it’s relatively seamless for me. I’ve been working on that painting since 1988. It’s been around for so long, I’m actually getting tired of it. But if you look at the collages you get the feeling of how it’s been generated, what it’s like to work on it and put the thing together and then to have it grow. Eventually, it’s just what it is. These collages then become studies for the painting and the painting is more or less whatever it can be.

I can’t make the paintings anymore, and I’m certainly not going to make a painting like that again because it would be too boring, so I take my chances. I know what I want, but it’s physically beyond me now. I can work on what I can handle. It’s a playoff between the object and my physical limits.

SO What do you mean by that?

FS What I can handle, the amount of energy I can expend in a day, those kinds of things.

SO I thought you meant conceptually, in terms of painting them up to their limits.

FS I don’t think there are any limits, but in this case I don’t know because I have to stop short. I’m sure that if I made these other collages into paintings they wouldn’t look anything like the collages because I’d keep going.

SO That’s one of the biggest surprises, that over the last twenty years you’ve developed the intuitive aspect of the work—they have become increasingly improvisational, and less programmatic.

FS Yes, in some ways they are. But it’s a bit tricky because if you look carefully, 99 percent of the stuff is what I’ve always made, but I use it in a more improvisational manner. It’s all there—I hate to say this—it’s made to order. (laughter) Then, I disorder it a little bit or, I should say, I reorder it. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to claim that I had the ability to disorder it. I wish I did.

SO Is that one of the reasons you went into scultpure?

FS No, I don’t know how I got into sculpture. I liked its physicality, that’s the only reason. I didn’t have a program. What you see up there on the wall are the first sculptural things I did. And they date back to 1982—so in actuality I haven’t gotten that far. The paintings got sculptural because the forms got more complicated. I’ve learned to weave in and out. The earlier pieces themselves are stiff, while the recent pieces are individually more manipulated. They are more complex to begin with, but their organization, the way they end up being put together, isn’t that different. You can’t shake your own sensibility. No matter what the concept is, the artist’s eye decides when it’s right; which is a notion of sensibility.

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Frank Stella, Die Marquise von O…, 1998, mixed media on canvas, 10 feet × 43 feet 4 inches (7 panels, various sizes). Photo by Steven Slomon.

SO One of the things that has thrown people into confusion about your recent work is all those early years when you were a serial artist, or seemingly systemic, and all of a sudden the work began to disassemble …

FS Maybe reassemble.

SO Okay, reassemble. But people want artists to stick with their themes—their style.

FS Yeah, it’s not an uncommon argument, but people don’t seem to get that it’s insanely wrongheaded. There’s an extreme level of incongruity to that argument. When people still talk about art that I made in the ’60s—most of them never saw it, and they never lived through it, and they don’t have a clue about it. The idea that they know what minimalism is is absurd. I don’t know what minimalism is! All I know is that I know Don Judd, I know Bob Morris, I know the people who made the work. Minimalism works for me in terms of both the work, and, in my case, since I lived it, the artists themselves. It’s about the work, but people are so focused on the productionand on identifying the artist. They don’t have the sense of it. They said that I wrote about Caravaggio and the art of the past in order to make my own work look good. The title of the book is Working Space. Maybe there’s a hint in the title. It’s about working, and what it’s like for artists to find a way and a place to feel comfortable with working.

SO Do you ever speculate as to why there’s this incredible desire for you to replicate what you’ve done in the past?

FS I’m not trying to be cynical, but they just want a little bit. They just want to get a handle on you and the idea, and that’s enough. Some people sense more but they don’t really get into it because it’s going one step too far. But the whole idea of making art is to be open, to be generous, and absorb the viewer and absorb yourself, to let them go into it. I have to go into all those places in order to make it work. These pieces are like that because that’s what I want. That’s the way I want to make them. You can see what I like—you can see John Chamberlain, Anthony Caro and David Smith. It’s all there; it’s not a problem.

SO What about the use of the word generosity in relation to making art?

FS People say that the paintings are always big because they’re striving for effect, but they’re also big so that I don’t trip over myself, so that I have room to work, and people can come in and be comfortable. It’s all of those things. You can’t take the most limited view of something. Although it’s hard not to laugh every time Hilton [Kramer] says, “The iron rule of modernism is that the bigger it is the worse it is.” (laughter) But you can be big in these small pieces; these have complicated surfaces and a lot of places to go and so, in their way, they’re generous, too. You can be generous and resistant at the same time. Which is probably some of the fascination with the stripe paintings, the aluminum paintings; they might be the best paintings that I ever painted. They have the surface and yet they absorb. They have an atmospheric illusionism or a kind of absorption. They give a little bit and yet they stay right up on the surface. You know there is a lot of light play, the surface shimmers and at the same time holds you at bay. So you get a little bit of conflict; you get a lot going on. It’s interesting.

SO What you are really talking about is the seriousness of the painting.

FS All the other varieties of the experience, the depth of it, its aliveness. But people want to make art into something else—or more. Painting is very rich and for me it better be a satisfying and rich experience. I don’t like a lot of the stuff that goes on in the art world, but it’s hard to be old and like what goes on around you. Anyway, the real point is that the things that don’t seem to me to be pictorially informed are not so interesting to me. I can’t help it.

Things that are in their way theatrical … I don’t mind using the world as it is or your perception of it, but I am slightly resentful of the idea of bringing the “other” world into the world of art. We’ve already got plenty going on. Most of the things of the real world are excluded from the world of art because they’re not very good and they’re not very useful for making art. We don’t have a lot of real-estate developers in the art world. (laughter) We don’t really need them.

SO It’s interesting … the subtle notion that art has something to do with idealism.

FS Yeah, I think it’s true. The most important thing is that you deal with it pictorially, you worry about making pictures. When it’s successful the result creates a visual experience, but it does something more. It makes available to you both a kind of experience and information that you couldn’t have gotten any other way. If the artist hadn’t made the effort to express what was there in pictorial terms, it would have been a different kind of information, if it would be anything. The pictures are special in that way and they add something to the world. They add something to the sum of knowledge. You don’t get it by being an artist. You get it by worrying about what’s pictorial.

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Frank Stella, Cantahar, 1998, mixed media on canvas, 156 × 156 inches. Photo by Steven Slomon.

SO I just read Caroline Jones’s book, The Machine in the Studio, and she makes a big point about you not wanting to be an artist, but wanting to make paintings. Do you still see yourself as the maker of paintings rather than as the artist?

FS I don’t need to be the artist, because of a couple of things: I don’t really have time to be an artist. (laughter) You know, it would be fun if I could, but I do what I can do. I’m pretty much done for the day after I’m done here in the studio. I don’t have time to go out to the bar and be an artist. I probably wouldn’t do it anyway.

SO You see being an artist as a social persona?

FS I’m just slightly impatient with creative ideas. I think that largely all creative people are in the advertising business. I don’t have to really worry about my role or my position as a good artist. I stay focused on doing whatever it takes to produce art. Maybe it’s easy for other people, but I don’t find it that easy to make art.

SO Your comment about not wanting to get the world into the work and this notion of being in the studio … I’ve never heard you talk about your relationship with pop art. It seems to manifest itself in your work—obviously not in your choice of imagery, but in attitude.

FS Again, it’s one of those things. Maybe it’s historically determined. I was an artist before there was pop art. When I saw pop art it didn’t—it’s okay, but I didn’t feel any sense of discovery. I already knew about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; and they are not, strictly speaking, pop artists, but without them there wouldn’t have been pop art. I was much more identified with the work that they did rather than pop art. I like all the pop artists. I like Rosenquist … I never had a problem with it.

SO I’m thinking of your move toward synthetic paint.

FS I don’t even know if the pop artists used fluorescent color, but I was already using fluorescent paint either when they were, or before they were. I was just as influenced by what goes on in the real world as the pop artists. I knew it was just a matter of time before neon and all those things became a part of the art lexicon.

SO Your recent paintings, including Marquise von O., are loaded up with imagery. I keep thinking about their relationship to Rosenquist’s paintings like F-111 and Horsefeathers—not in terms of pop’s imagery, but in terms of literally loading up the spectacle aspect, the aesthetic end of it, the aggressiveness. At the time that you started using fluorescent colors, everybody else was using the traditional neutral palette. You were the only abstract painter, it seems to me, pressing the visual by using color considered unnatural and somewhat sensational.

FS As far as abstract painting is concerned, I was pushing it as hard as I could, trying to find room for myself and trying to do things. You mentioned idealism. I didn’t have an ideal in mind. As far as I was concerned, modern art had begun. It was handed to me, to all of us who were working, and it was supposed to go on.

SO By any means necessary?

FS Whatever it takes.

SO I would assume, given the things that you’ve said, that it still needs to be pushed—by whatever it takes, by making the ‘unpredictable’ move.

FS Yeah—thank you—but whatever charge there is in the painting, it really is whatever it takes; it’s what’s necessary, and you keep going on and you bang your head until you find it. You don’t worry about what somebody might think. Others see it when it’s done; but they don’t see it when it’s desperate, when it had a hole about four feet wide in it and the hole kept becoming a black hole no matter what I put in it. There was no painting there; it was just a painting with a hole in it.

SO Is that the reason for your move toward architecture?

FS Again, the architecture was really about the physicality of the forms, making things that seemed three dimensional—at a certain point, you make something big enough, it’s potentially habitable. If it’s a habitable sculpture, why isn’t it architecture? Because it doesn’t have a toilet in it? (laughter)

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Frank Stella, Weshalb? (Gustav), 1998, mixed media on cast aluminum, 87 × 84 × 30 inches. Photo by Steven Slomon.

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Frank Stella, Model for Kunsthall and Garden Project, Dresden, 1992.

SO So architecture is circumscribed by function, unlike painting—I remember your project in Dresden for the Kunsthalle.

FS That project was a developing of ideas. And I was right. If that had been built it would have been done before Bilbao, so it seems to me that my ideas certainly weren’t wrong about where things were going. I wanted to make architectural form perform at a higher level. Not that that was my idea, Saarinen was great, Frank Lloyd Wright was great. There has always been great architecture. I did the piece and I also lectured about it. It seemed to me there was a necessity and a lot of possibilities hidden in the Eastern European and the German Romantic architecture of the early 20th-century, the stuff that was pre-Bauhaus.

SO Einstein Tower by Eric Mendelsohn.

FS Einstein is a perfectly good example. Hermann Finsterlin also designed a lot of things that were never built that were like that. That was an okay style. The Bauhaus might have turned out to be more like that because they were oriented toward the possibility of marrying art and architecture, but art and technology put an end to that affair.

SO You think so?

FS Yeah, the glass and steel wall, that was the end. Art and architecture never came together again.

SO Do you have an interest in Friedrich Keisler?

FS Yeah, I used to think Keisler was the worst artist of all time. Now I think he’s very groovy. (laughter) I couldn’t understand Keisler, I must admit. On the other hand, I did love the photos of the stage sets. I can imagine what it was like; the things Peggy Guggenheim had done in her gallery in 1942 were fabulous. That was still the best installation of all time. It might have been the installation to end all installations.

SO The photographs of those paintings with universal joints. In terms of technology putting an end to art’s marriage with architecture, what about your use of technology? If one were putting it in terms of a modernist concept—one doesn’t talk about those anymore—what about your innovation in technique, how much the computer has literally gotten into your paintings and shadowed your work.

FS Sometimes you can see it; sometimes it just disappears.

SO In the 19th century it was how to get photography into painting. My question is, how much does the relationship between technology and art play in your work?

FS I got hung up in the beginning; building a painting became the issue: building the painting, building the sculpture, building the building—that became a kind of leitmotif. I was looking to get away from that by using smoke as a source of image and form but unfortunately I didn’t, because that ended up being the problem of building the smoke. (laughter) The other problem is that basically making art, particularly pictorial art, has been about an illusion and the basic illusion is that it’s a static art. However, without a sense of motion and direction and all of those kinds of things, it’s no good. You have to have a sense of motion somehow, yet in the end the work is static. The most obvious thing, kinetic art, doesn’t quite do it. So I don’t know what the answer is, but certainly it wasn’t a problem for me until the smoke. It’s about having to follow this sense of motion and action. Everyone likes to see one thing turn into another and interact with another—and then they do it, they’re caught, and that’s just the motion I like best.

SO Is it also about bringing art back to gesture?

FS That’s a given. No art is any good unless you can feel how it’s put together. By and large it’s the eye, the hand and if it’s any good, you feel the body. Most of the best stuff seems to be a complete gesture, the totality of the artist’s body; you can really lean on it.

SO Your sculptures of the last five years have an incredible amount of weight to them.

FS Yeah, I feel comfortable with the sculpture. I don’t know why. It’s obvious on one hand, and on the other hand, it’s not so obvious. For one reason or another people have a feeling for junk and weight. I take what happens. I mean, I overdo it a lot of the time but that’s what art’s about—you underdo it or you overdo it.

SO I first saw your sculptures in Amsterdam.

FS Yeah, we blew up the metal, we called it ‘the exploded walls.’ That was the start. I wasn’t sure. In my mind that was really very provisional work, but I decided to have a shot at it even though I wasn’t all that convinced. I didn’t like it all that much. I didn’t know if I was going to go on with it, but I did.

SO Those sculptures seem as if the paintings of the time had gotten pushed out into space so far that they finally had to come down off the wall.

FS Yeah, they got blown out. (laughter)

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Frank Stella, Chatal Huyuk Shrine A. III.1, 1999, cast aluminum and stainless steel, 141 × 120 ×175 inches. Photo by Steven Slomon.

SO In other interviews, you’ve talked of being a die-hard abstract painter; I think it was in the context of introducing the figuration of smoke. The question my friends who are abstract painters most wanted me to ask you is, How do you perceive abstract painting? What do you see as being at stake? Is there something at stake, or is it just, as you said earlier, the making of that experience?

FS I’m not worried about abstraction anymore. The problem is what it always was and always will be—which is to make art. I like abstraction. It seems the best chance to make the best art right now that you could ever have.

SO What do you find yourself not seeing? Or have you always seen that art is issue oriented?

FS I’m always looking for the way to make the best art that I can make. It’s never been an issue for me. I’m not going to make pictures that look like Mickey Mouse.

SO The mythology of you is almost like a cowboy movie. You rode into town and you transformed abstract painting and brought it into line with what Johns and Rauschenberg were doing in terms of pictorial stuff: You made it real. For 15 years, people like Phil Leider and Michael Fried presented your work as issue oriented. Did you have any real relationship to that? Or had that just been piled onto your work?

FS No, at the time it was an issue, but you can have a career of issues for just so long. It’s an issue when you are in it with everybody else and then you all sort of drift away and drift apart. The generations shift or change and then it’s no longer issue oriented for you. Younger artists have their own issues. It was never an issue for me, whether I should be doing pattern painting; that was a real struggle for them, but not for me.

SO Obviously, objecthood, for some period of time, was the way to talk about your work.

FS Yeah, that was the way for Michael Fried to talk about it. I just had to make the paintings. I was worried about the degree of permissible illusionism. That’s the one issue I still worry about. I don’t know if I’ve capitulated anything by using a little bit of shadowing on the big paintings. It’s not my cup of tea, but for right now it works and I’m not going to argue with it.

SO What’s funny in terms of talking about Marquise, or even the paintings you recently showed at Sperone Westwater, is how that trompe l’oeil shadow sprayed here and there makes the paintings flatter. For younger painters, making abstract painting includes the struggle to keep it alive as an idiom in the face of postmodernist prohibitions and criticism.

FS Well, nobody wants it. I find that a little discouraging, too. It’s not so much a problem for me because I’m used to adversity and people not liking painting much anyway. They all talk about how fabulous the paintings of the past were, but in the past I don’t remember anyone ever liking them that much. It is a fantasy that I was at one time a popular artist—I was never a popular artist.

SO What would differentiate success from making successful, influential art? The work has an impact that the market may not reflect.

FS I agree with you. It’s part of what we talked about in the beginning. It’s not that I want to influence people, but I don’t mind being engaged. In other words, I would be happier if I felt a sense from the art world in general of a little more feedback. Not about me, but in their work, if there were a little bit more that I could really relate to, I would be happier. I see plenty of stuff I like, but it’s been a long time since people had the ability to practice the kind of image making that—I’ll give you a couple of names, Gottlieb and Kline. You don’t think of them as great artists, but they had a kind of impact; they made a statement. That seems to be so hard now, so difficult to come by. It’s a nitpicking world out there. I have to admit, I’m one of the nitpickers. But what’s to stop guys from just stepping up and whacking a ball and making a painting? Whatever the political climate may be, it’s still the one beautiful thing about the art world—you can just do it. It sounds like a cliché, but there is a lot of opportunity. I really believe that if anyone were to do anything with a real breadth to it, it would be embraced like the Second Coming.

This interview has made me nostalgic for the old work—back then I knew that when I got to the bottom of the painting, all I had to do was work my way back up to the top.

Saul Ostrow is a curator and critic. His is presently Director of the Center for Visual Art and Culture at the University of Connecticut and an Associate professor of Art. Since 1995 he has been the editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture published by G+B Arts International. He is the art editor for BOMB Magazine and co-editor of Lusitania Press which publishes anthologies on contemporary cultural issues. 

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Originally published in

BOMB 71, Spring 2000

Featuring interviews with Frank Stella, John Currin, Jim Crace, Frances Kiernan, Brian Boyd, Marsha Norman, and Arto Lindsay. 

Read the issue
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