Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

David and Art - Frank Stella

Without even trying, painter Frank Stella took all of American art in a radically new direction.

Frank Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts—a suburb of Boston—in May 1936. His parents were first-generation Italian Americans. All of his grandparents had arrived from Sicily back at the turn of the 20th century and he grew up hearing Italian spoken in his house. He was the oldest of three siblings. He went to high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he took a couple of art classes, learning to paint from an abstractionist named Patrick Morgan who taught there. From there, he went to Princeton where he studied history. (Way to go, Frank!) He graduated in 1958 and moved to New York City to be a working artist. He found a loft to rent, and to pay the bills he picked up work as a house painter.

It was an interesting time to try to find your way as an artist in America. Abstract Expressionism, the dominant form since the late 40s, had lost its energy and younger painters were looking for a way out. A duo named Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were experimenting in a radical new direction incorporating familiar images. Others were trying to find new energy in less forceful abstraction. Stella went his own way. He didn’t want to portray emotion in his art, and he had no interest in incorporating familiar images. Nor did he want to pursue illusionary effects. He wanted to force you to acknowledge that any time you look at a painting, you’re looking at a flat surface with paint on it. He also wanted to see if he could paint a piece in which no single part of the canvas was any more important than any other part. One in which the edges were no less significant than the center. It was hard to imagine.

The result was a breakthrough that changed the course of American art and led to a whole new form that came to be called “minimalism.” In a series of paintings that he did the first couple of years he was in New York, he covered the canvas side to side and top to bottom with black enamel house paint, through which coursed precise lines where there was no paint—where you could see the raw canvas if you looked closely enough. It was impossible to tell if you should think the painted areas were stripes or the non-painted areas were the stripes. There was no focal point on the canvas that drew your eye. He did 24 of them.

Famed New York gallery owner Leo Castelli encountered Stella and his work for the first time in September, 1959 and from then on described the artist as an epiphany. “It is difficult for me to describe the extraordinary shock I experienced when I saw the large black paintings he was doing at the time,” Castelli said. He immediately asked him to join his gallery and Frank Stella was on his way.

There’s more to this story next week.