Frank Stella interview: the bigger picture

imageFrank Stella has been at the forefront of abstract art for half a century. Ahead of an extensive retrospective in Britain, he talks about his work

If you are looking for clues to the character of Frank Stella, the Formula One racing car parked inside his vast studio in upstate New York is a giveaway. ‘Ferrari gave that to me,’ the American abstract artist tells me nonchalantly, hooking a Cuban cigar from an ashtray beside him. ‘It did race, but it doesn’t have a motor now, so it’s just for show.’

Stella has been probing the limits of painting for more than five decades. His love of fast cars, though, dates from the mid-1970s, when BMW gave him one in exchange for decorating a racing model that competed at Le Mans. Six years later, in 1982, he was arrested for hurtling at 105mph along a highway in New York State. But the supercar inside his studio in Rock Tavern is testament not only to the artist’s love of speed. Once driven by Michael Schumacher, it also represents the competitive streak that has blazed through Stella’s life.

Take tennis. When he was younger – before, he says, his hip and knees ‘gave way’ – he used to play for hours, several times a week. After a while, though, his friends stopped playing with him. The gallery director Lawrence Rubin, who gave Stella his second solo show, in Paris in 1961, once said, ‘He doesn’t play for the fun of playing. He plays to win. And that’s the way he plays art.’

Stella is 75 now, but age does not appear to have forced him to alter his game plan. His studio, a former warehouse so large that birds flit overhead as we talk, is full of recent work. There are raucous reliefs, dominated by loops of luminescent colour. There are fantastical sculptures, formed by tangles of stainless steel and carbon fibre. Some of it will feature in a new exhibition – the most extensive show in Britain of Stella’s work to date – opening at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London later this month.

British interviewers marvel at Stella’s high-pitched New Yorker’s voice, reminiscent of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, but today he sounds a little reedy, giving the impression of a mobster who’s been recently cashiered. He settles into his rocking chair, a bottle of Baileys liqueur by his feet.

Stella was born in 1936, to first-generation Sicilians, and grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Boston. His father, a gynaecologist, sent him to Phillips Academy, an elite secondary school in nearby Andover, where he earned a reputation for feistiness (he once lost three front teeth in a dormitory scrap). In 1954 he entered Princeton University, where he excelled as a lacrosse player, and joined a night class in painting and drawing. Before long he was painting for several hours a day, producing work in the style of the Abstract Expressionists. ‘I wouldn’t have bothered becoming an artist if I didn’t like the artists of that generation so much,’ he tells me.

After graduating in 1958 he headed straight for New York, where he rented a room on the Lower East Side and spent the summer painting. ‘I came here because it was the place where you could see art that I was interested in – it’s as simple as that.’

Was it daunting to follow in the footsteps of Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning? ‘No,’ Stella says. ‘They were fabulously uninhibiting – because the work was accessible, and beautiful. It was wildly exciting to be on the scene, which was smaller but way more intense and interesting than today.’

Before long, Stella was sharing a loft studio on West Broadway with the sculptor Carl Andre and the photographer Hollis Frampton. When money was tight, the three of them subsisted on peppered soup. ‘The artists stuck together quite a bit,’ Stella says. ‘There was a fair amount of social activity – you went to bars because your loft was so cold and the bar stayed open until 4am. I’d drink through the night and then go home and sleep. But, you know, all I really remember is the part about working – about what I was making.’

As befits an athlete, trained to be quick out of the blocks, Stella’s breakthrough came early, when he was barely in his twenties. The catalyst was the debut solo show of the American artist Jasper Johns, which sold out at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York at the beginning of 1958. (‘It was hard not to be impressed,’ Stella recalls.) Intrigued by the red-and-white bands of Johns’s paintings of the American flag, Stella started experimenting with colourful stripes of his own.

‘I was working on a particular painting,’ he says (called Delta, it will be shown at the Haunch of Venison). ‘And I remember I got mad at it. So I painted over it, and went to bed. When I looked at it the next day, it didn’t look that bad. All I’d done was simplify it by painting out the bands all black. But something was happening. It had a kind of presence. That was the beginning.’

Delta initiated the series that made Stella’s name, and assured him a niche in art history. For more than a year he worked on what became known as his Black Paintings: large, aggressive canvases covered with stripes of black enamel paint that formed repetitive, rippling patterns. They remain his best-known works.

At the end of 1959, four of the Black Paintings were included in the important Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, where Stella was shown alongside other precocious stars such as Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. In little more than a year, aged only 23, he had taken Manhattan by storm. Does he remember how he felt? ‘Not much,’ he says. ‘You know, I thought the paintings were good.’

Cocksure rather than cock-a-hoop, Stella worked at white heat as the decade unfurled, producing one superb series of abstract paintings after another. In the Aluminum series of 1960, he experimented with metallic paints and unorthodox ‘notched’ canvases, creating shiny striped designs determined solely by the structure of the support. ‘The Aluminum Paintings were a high point for accomplishment and ambition,’ Stella says. ‘Those were the most abstract paintings I was able to make, and I still prize them. They are without precedent.’

Painting stripes soon became Stella’s hallmark. He used them as the basis for complex geometric designs (concentric squares, pentagons and parallelograms, interlocking chevrons). He laid them on top of canvases that formed unusual shapes (T-shapes, L-shapes – anything but old-fashioned rectangles). He rendered them with flat, everyday house paints, rather than oils.

Again and again, he claimed that there was nothing to his paintings beyond their surfaces. ‘What you see is what you see,’ he said in 1964, and this soon became his mantra. As the 1960s wore on, he systematically dismantled one of the central tenets of painting since the Renaissance – the idea that artists could summon a sense of space and depth in two dimensions. ‘In the 20th century, it was impossible to get away from the notion that the canvas or the painted surface was no longer beholden to illusionistic depth,’ he tells me. ‘It was just obvious.’

Although he enjoyed the backing of powerful figures in the art world, his early work baffled art critics and scared off collectors. One critic castigated his paintings as ‘unspeakably boring’; another compared them with ‘bolts of material waiting to be made into a pinstripe suit’. A piece in the New York Times called Stella ‘the Cézanne of nihilism, the master of ennui’.

Was he hurt? ‘No,’ he says quickly. ‘That much attention probably cemented my early career.’

In 1961 Stella married his first wife, the art historian Barbara Rose. (They split up in 1968.) In between socialising and helping to look after their two children, he worked hard, and his effort had an effect. His impersonal abstraction accelerated the emergence of Minimal art – so much so that it is now a cliché to call Stella the ‘father’ of Minimalism. Stella laughs. ‘Somebody once said that to Barney [Barnett Newman, the Abstract-Expressionist painter], and Barney said, “Who’s the mother?” Yes, I made pictures that probably influenced some people. But by ’65, I was already working on the Irregular Polygons, which to my mind were among the best paintings I ever made.’

A monumental series of 44 canvases, the Irregular Polygons took Stella more than two years to complete, and represented a departure. Suddenly his trademark stripes had disappeared. Instead he was experimenting with vast fields of sumptuous colour. Whereas his earlier series had been resolutely impersonal, the Irregular Polygons had an autobiographical flavour: the asymmetric canvases were named after towns in New Hampshire, recalling boyhood fishing trips that Stella used to take with his father in the state’s White Mountains.

These paintings secured Stella’s position at the forefront of the avant-garde, and ultimately won him his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition opened in 1970, when he was 33, making him the youngest artist ever honoured by MoMA in this way. (Nearly two decades later, in 1987, he became the only living artist to have had
a second retrospective at the institution.)

Was it intimidating to be honoured so publicly while still so young? ‘No,’ Stella says. ‘It was what it was: 10 years of work at a level that other artists couldn’t produce. I mean, there were other artists who could have produced shows just as good – but none of them would have been young.’ The exhibition was a watershed. ‘I felt I’d gone as far
as I could go,’ he says. ‘The retrospective was the excuse for starting again.’

In the decades that followed, he continued working in series, but the stark, proto-Minimalist style of the early years disappeared. A much freer, more expansive idiom took its place – as in the large aluminium reliefs of the Exotic Birds series of 1976-80, inspired in part by Stella’s second wife, Harriet McGurk, a paediatrician who loves birdwatching. (They married in 1978, and have two sons together.) This new approach paved the way for the Neo-Expressionist and graffiti artists who towered over New York’s art world during the 1980s.

‘The 70s were a struggle, and then in the 80s, the market changed, and I just went up with everybody else,’ he says. ‘There was a lot of income, but I went through it in a hurry. Then the dealers became difficult. Nobody wanted to advance me money because I was such a loser. So I was self-supporting from roughly 1990 to 2008.’

Today Stella is represented by the Freedman Art Gallery in New York. His work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. ‘A very large piece would be $600,000 to $700,000,’ he says, ‘and a more normal piece would be somewhere between $80,000 and $150,000.’ Stella tells me that he needs to produce and sell five or six large pieces every year to finance future work as well as to live comfortably.

When I ask if he considers himself rich, he laughs. ‘I’m certainly not a wealthy man. I have to find money to make art – that’s still expensive. It’s no different from what it was at the beginning, except the numbers are bigger. It’s still day-to-day. I don’t live on cash savings. I don’t have income from investments, or stuff like that. No, I’m not wealthy in the conventional sense.’

Stella continues to influence contemporary artists, such as the American Mark Grotjahn and the German abstract painter Tomma Abts, who won the Turner Prize in 2006. Does he ever worry, though, that his later work hasn’t lived up to his gilded early achievements?

‘No. I would worry if somebody else had gone from where I was and done better, but I don’t see any improvement on the abstract quality of the pictures I made during the 60s. And, like all artists, I believe what I’m doing now is the best.’

Fighting talk – but surely it must grate that his reputation as the champion of 1960s art has been wrested from him by Andy Warhol. What was Warhol’s secret?

‘I don’t think he had a secret,’ Stella says. ‘He benefited from overproduction and the fact that he died early. I don’t think it has that much to do with Andy. Andy was never that popular during his lifetime – I mean, witness the fact that he was shot.’ (Stella is referring to the attempted murder of Warhol in 1968.)

Did Stella become friends with him? ‘I knew him for a little bit, I went to a couple of parties. I liked Andy. He was all right. I mean, the celebrity-chasing lifestyle seemed kind of dull. Some of his paintings I like, and a lot of his stuff I think is not so interesting, and I let it go at that. He never achieved any fortune, as far as I know. He was so naive that he believed they were going to call him from Hollywood and bring him there to make movies. And it wasn’t a joke.’

Before I leave, I suggest that Stella can sound competitive. He laughs. ‘Well, I suppose I am competitive,’ he says. ‘But one of the things about being competitive is respect for the other competitors. People forget about that. If you’re really competitive, you know how good they are, too.’

From the corner of my eye, I catch sight of the F1 racing car, which Stella acquired a decade ago – and reflect that it isn’t only fast cars that he likes to race. For years he had a share in a stable that breeds racehorses in upstate New York (he now owns Delehanty Stock Farm outright). His eyes light up. ‘I breed four or five horses a year, and then race them,’ he says. ‘We do a pretty good job, with the amount of money that I can muster.

Gearbest TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic
TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic only $2.99