Obituary of Frank Stella

In February 2015, a pair of enormous stars, one made of polished aluminum and the other of unvarnished teak, appeared in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London. These belonged to the American artist and honorary academic Frank Stella, who has died at the age of 87.

For all their differences, the two stars were part of a single work called, with deadpan literalness, Inflated Star and Wooden Star. Given their size – each 7 meters long in all directions – it seemed unlikely that these had anything to hide. In 1966, during a search for the mystical atmosphere of abstract expressionism, Stella said: ‘What you see is what you see.’

It became the rallying cry of a then newly emerging style known as minimalism – and also seemed to match Inflated Star and Wooden Star to a T.

And yet Stella’s work raised many more questions than it answered. His stars were welded together by a tubular metal fixture, as their title read. They seemed to orbit each other, though they exerted a gravitational force that was impossible to tell.

They differed greatly from each other both visually and materially. Inflated Star was padded and soft, polished to a Jeff Koonsy high gloss; Wooden Star seemed austere and skeletal. It was impossible to read one without referencing the other, and yet the framework of that reference – before/after, older/newer, stronger/weaker – was left entirely for the viewer to decide.

There was also the issue of puns again. Both sets of Stella’s grandparents had arrived in the U.S. as Sicilian immigrants in the early 1900s. His parents, Frank Sr, a gynecologist, and Constance (née Santonelli), an artist turned housewife, spoke Italian to each other at home. Stella is Italian for ‘star’.

Stella’s involvement with the star shape began early, and in two dimensions. In 1963, during a residency at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, he made paintings on star-shaped canvases, such as Port Tampa City. These were joined by prints such as the Star of Persia series from 1967. In one form or another, Stella’s many hundreds of stars can be found in galleries, squares and sculpture parks around the world. He was adamant that the form was not his nominative business card, pointing out that the only person he knew who did not own a Stella star was himself.

Fame came to him early. The eldest of three children, Stella was born in Malden, an affluent suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, and sent by his ambitious parents to Phillips Academy in Andover, a local equivalent of Eton and alma mater of both Presidents Bush. The art lessons he received there were the only ones he would receive. After graduating with a BA in history from Princeton in 1958, he moved to New York, where he rented an attic on West Broadway and made a living as a house painter.

He was trained in this by his father, who, despite a 60-hour working week, still wanted to carry out painting jobs in and around the house with the help of his son. Stella’s early Copper Paintings (1961) used the barnacle-repellent gunk he had used to seal his father’s sloop the summer before. Another series, which started the same year, was called Benjamin Moore, after the well-known brand of house paint in which they were made. Andy Warhol purchased an entire set of the works new and shortly thereafter began his own Campbell’s Soup series.

However, Stella was not a pop artist. He used household paints and brushes not to satirize popular culture, but because they were familiar to him. “The first time I saw a Pollock,” he said in a 2000 interview with the NPR radio network, “I immediately knew how to do it.”

The black paintings he began in 1959 remain among his most famous canvases, such as Die Fahne Hoch!, in the Whitney Museum of American Art, powerful in part because of the domesticity of their darkness. They are constructed from parallel bands of black household enamel, separated by narrow strips of rough canvas, and are colloquially known as ‘pinstripe’ paintings; a mode that Stella would use until the 1970s. These early works were so immediately successful that their 23-year-old creator was included in the Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1959, alongside Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly. In 1970, at the age of 33, he became the youngest artist ever to receive a retrospective at MoMA.

Stella’s early claim that a painting was “a flat surface with paint on it – nothing more” seemed reductive, but it gave him some rules to contend with. An early way to circumvent the self-imposed restrictions of his own form of minimalism was the production of shaped canvases – stars, and so-called ‘notched’ paintings such as Newstead Abbey (1960), in which notches were cut on all four sides of a painting. vertical canvas generates a rhythm of lines that suggest a diamond in the center. The feeling is of a flattened ziggurat, as if Stella’s two-dimensional work could transition into three dimensions at any moment.

That was more or less what happened in the mid-1980s. Over the next decade, Stella produced works such as La Scienza della Fiacca (4x) (1984), which broadly responded to the novel Moby Dick. Where the black and pinstripe paintings had worked with and against their own persistent flatness, Stella’s paintings of the ’80s and ’90s suddenly broke away from the wall, pushing outward in curls and tufts of cast fiberglass and aluminum, often smeared with paint. (“They are surfaces to paint on,” he said at the time about the new works. “So it’s still all about painting.”) From there it was only a small step to sculptures such as the stars that adorn the courtyard of Burlington House in 2015.

While this seemed like a shift from minimalism to maximalism, change itself was part of Stella’s story. Also in the mid-1980s, the cigar-chomping artist became fascinated with the idea of ​​turning smoke rings into sculptures.

Over the next twenty years, these slowly morphed, as smoke rings do, into works with names like Atalanta and Hippomenes (2017), some on the wall and some made for the floor. As with his stars, Stella’s intention seemed to be to see how far he could push the representation before it disappeared into a whiff of abstraction.

Change also meant that his work moved back and forth between media, dimensions and decades. When the World Trade Center was destroyed in September 2001, Stella’s large diptych paintings, which had hung in the lobby of one of the buildings, went with it. In 2021, they were replaced on the square of the rebuilt WTC by the statue Jasper’s Split Star, named after his friend Johns. This was both a completely new work and one whose roots went back sixty years, to the painting Jasper’s Dilemma (1962-63).

In the 21st century, Stella was undoubtedly one of the great old men of American art. In 2009, he received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. In 2023, Delta, one of his first black paintings, went up for sale at Art Basel Miami for a price tag of $45 million.

Stella married the art historian and critic Barbara Rose in 1961. They had two children, Rachel and Michael, and divorced in 1969. He had a daughter, Laura, from a relationship with Shirley De Lemos Wyse. Stella had two sons, Peter and Patrick, with pediatrician Harriet McGurk, whom he married in 1973. She and all five children and five grandchildren survive him.

• Frank Philip Stella, artist, born May 12, 1936; died May 4, 2024

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