Wetterling Gallery proudly presents Frank Stella's latest solo exhibition, titled Recent Works.
Opening: Friday, 21 April, 5-7pm.
On view until Saturday, 27 May 2023.
FRANK STELLA – A LIFE IN FORMS by Jane Wainwright
‘Forms and shapes – however they may, or whatever they may end up representing – even if they only represent themselves, it’s just a question of having a vocabulary. And it’s a vocabulary that, is basically a visual experience and a visual catalogue, put to use’ – Frank Stella in conversation with Jean Wainwright, Rock Tavern, 2017.
Frank Stella has always wilfully and imaginatively explored the possibilities that can be extracted from materials in exciting combinations with colour, angles, shapes, sinuous forms and complex curves, his visual DNA. Searching for the origins of his interest in both the history of art, visual language, and process, seems to somehow resonate with his college experience in Princeton, as he explained ‘They used to give you these psychology exams and they’d always ask you “would you rather go to a museum or to a factory?” - Well... I was always torn, because as it turned out, the biggest effect on probably my career, on my thinking in college, was not to visit twenty museums, but was the visit to the Bethlehem Steel plant. That really changed everything in my life... just about the physicality of life in the sense of making things.’(1)
Stella’s underpinning knowledge and artistic journey has been imbued with critical insights, informed by both the history of art and academic theory. His work has shifted and transformed for over six decades propelled by his restless artistic curiously. His shapes and forms are, as Jordan Kantor expresses, reshuffled ‘treating his previous production as a kind of dictionary from which new sentences can be crafted’ (2). Although there are always tantalising references to his own past works Stella is adamant that what is there in his practice, is either the making of an object or working on a surface: It is ‘how things go together’ which is the ‘only part that counts for him’ (3). Stella however gives the viewer so much to immediately perceive with the ingenious compositions and connections that co-exist in his work, inviting us to complete our own narratives from his lexicon of references. We see hints of Salvador Dali (a painter he professes he hated as a painter, but admired for his three dimensionality) Wassily Kandinsky for the connections with music, Pablo Picasso, Cubism, Tatlin’s Tower, El Lissitzky, Joseph Albers, John Chamberlain, but Stella’s work is always distinctly and uncompromisingly crafted from his own visual language.
Stella’s ongoing Scarlatti Sonata Kirkpatrick series begun in 2006 perhaps exem - plifies the way he works, discovering new solutions while re-evaluating his previous constructed forms and combinations. Looking at his four compositions K.123 with Smoke and Jacks on Stainless Background (FS2017.027), K.460, K.503 (FS2015.016) and K.510 (FS2016.026) we see dynamic connections between them, even though each one is resolutely individual. Named after the Baroque 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti, whose 555 keyboard sonatas were given a chronological ‘K’ number by the musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick, they are, like Stella’s previous Moby Dick series works that are illusional rather than literal. In a reference to Goethe’s supposition that architecture is ‘frozen music’, the staccato notes, transitions, modulations, and repetitions of the Scarlatti sonatas are silently present in his Scarlatti Sonata Kirkpatrick series, twisting and turning forms, rising falling and entangling with and on their steel supports and armatures. There are echoes of Wassily Kandinsky’s Compositions, but released from their canvas grounds. Stella uses the latest technology from scanning to 3D digital printing to take found objects, or visual prompts, aluminium lines and plastic planes, stretching modifying or distorting to create his sculptural compositions that can float in space.
In K.123 with Smoke & Jacks on Stainless Background, 2015 (FS2017.027), the rising and falling of the K.123 sonata with its particular notes and repetitions is melded with other visual clues garnered from the title. Fixed to a sheet of reclaimed stainless steel the surface of his three dimensional ‘painting’ the pop colours of the fabricated jacks directly reference a popular 1960’s children’s game: ‘jacks’ are initially thrown in the air to fall randomly, players then bounce a small ball, catch it when it lands at the same time as scooping up the Jacks in one hand. Here, the stilled momentum of the game is realised in the sculptural jack shapes. The work also visually implies solidified cigar smoke in two sections of intertwined labyrinthine and concentric shapes, a recurring motif in many of Stella’s works. As Stella described to Michael Auping: ‘A smoke ring is a gesture that is intrinsically part of space, integrated into it. It doesn’t sit in front of space and it isn’t in the background, it’s like a molecular part of it’ (4). In contrast K.460 (FS2015.007), K.503 (FS2015.016) and K.510 (FS2016.026), although sharing the same link to the Scarlatti sonatas, are very different. K.460 (FS2015.007) rises from the floor from an industrial plinth, K.503 (2015.016) extends upwards from its stainless steel support with a long stainless steel metal tube, and K.510 (FS2016.026) is hung from the wall on an industrial hook. In K.460 (FS2015.007), the painted forms soar and loop, they chase each other is swirls of interlocking colour and tones. There are sharp edges like the beaks of birds, differing thicknesses and contrasts of texture. The entwining shapes are entangled with a characteristic Stella steel star, a recurring motif in many of his sculptural works with its multiplicity of reference. The steel sup port itself with its distinctive structure appears to reference the individual passages of the sonata. Similarly, in K.503 (FS2015.016), although the links between the sonatas and the sculptures are not literal, it is difficult not to see musical analogies in the concentric forms that appear to mirror each other. The moulded shapes play with our imagination suggesting solidified sound emerging from a surreal speaker, perhaps a reference to the formal device in the K sonatas where each half leads to a pivitol point, or ‘crux’ with repetitive passages as the sonata modulates away from the ‘home key’. The painted textures and circles of steel add a lightness and airiness to the work as it hangs suspended from the wall. K.510 (FS2016.026) provides an even denser musical soundscape with shapes and differing surfaces orbiting each other.
The motif of the brightly coloured jacks reappears in Study for On the Beach 1, 2018 (FS2015.032) but now the support is made of collage like sections protruding in a curved and lattice like grid, the bright fabricated colours with their shiny surfaces seem to seem to suggest beach toys, architecture and atmospheric clouds. Stella often titled his work after names of actual places and Miramichi (version 2)1x, 2020 (FS2022.011) is both a reference to the town in New Brunswick, Canada and its river. In his continual re-evaluation of a motif and curiously about the tensile limits of materials, he uses nylon RPT to swirl and loop in gymnastic and acrobatic configurations as they appear to swing over and under the steel armature frame. Although in stasis the shapes seem to be constantly shifting and dynamic, reminding us of Stella’s fundamental understanding of elemental movement whether water or smoke, abstracting and reassembling it in fixed yet fluid abstract forms. Star and the smoke motifs occur in other works in the exhibition. Botanical Star on Stainless Background, 2018 (FS2018.033) is symptomatic of the way that Stella works through an idea until he feels that he has exhausted its possibilities. The star first emerged in his shaped canvas works such as Plant City (1963), but eventually he abandoned the form as a motif because of the obvious references to his name reanimating the form decades later. Botanical Star on Stainless Background (FS2015.033) explodes from its steel support, the shapes are painted in bright oranges, pinks, greens and blues, the points of the star become petals as they metamorphose and intersperse with struts and looped curves resembling stylized stamen. There is playfulness in the work as the metaphysical and religious symbolism of stars are now transported to a multicoloured botanical surreal plant form.
Stella has always professed his love of materials. In his compact table top sculptures Guan Yu (Nickel RPT Fragment), 2019 (FS2019.050) and Gold RPT Fragment, 2019, 2021 (FS2019.054 ) – formed from reclaimed fragments then nickel or gold plated –we see again his love of twisting our viewpoint and prompting us on our own imaginative journey. Guan Yu refers to the god of war in China –but there is also an irony that in 2019, the enormous unpopular multimillion pound-statue dedicated to Guan Yu began being slowly dismantled. The sculptures are fashioned and interlocked industrial forms with pipes and broken gratings their industrial nature reminding us of elite engine parts and industrial components reformed and moulded and coated to become precious intriguing jewel like sculptures.
Much of Stella’s work is constructed as three dimensional collages, and the huge Enlarged Corona Collage Print 210, 2020 (FS2020.298) printed on polyester, reminds us of his early admiration of Kurt Schwitters and his experiments in practising with concepts of positive and negative space. Stella never completely relinquishes his relationship to figure and ground and as Auping elaborates ‘he has never jettisoned the picture plane; rather his work as a whole can be seen as an exploration of how to continuously re-form its relationship between the wall and the viewer’ (5). The ‘cut out’ shapes are Stella’s own particular dance.
Ultimately, we see in the exhibition the twists and turns and readdressing of Stella’s continuing creative energy, emphatically insisting on his dynamic explorations of the relationships between ‘materials, illusionistic – space and three dimensional space’. His cavernous Rock Tavern studio is his lab where he rethinks, invents, connects and explores different solutions in his ongoing figure and ground dilemmas, dialogues and problem solving.
At Wetterling Gallery, forms balance on plinths or suspend from inventive armatures, we see joyful colours exploding from a multitude of moulded shapes, there are golds and silvers and industrial objects released from their function and refashioned, we see an enormous collage, we see Stella’s gestural vocabulary. As we stand in front of these works there is a pared down synopsis of many of the dominant ideas that are still propelling and exciting Stella in his eighties. So I leave the last words to him, who, when asked to explain his practice, like all artists, said: ‘My work speaks for itself; you don’t need me to say anything to tell you what it’s about’. When questioned if he believed that, he responded - ‘It’s as good as anything’(6). And then you see the work, and it really is all there.
(1) Interview between Frank Stella and Jean Wainwright in his studio in Rock Tavern, March 2017. (2) Jordan Kantor, ‘Frank Painting: Some Aspects of Frank Stella’s work’ in Frank Stella, A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2015, p43. (3) Jean Wainwright and Frank Stella, 2017. (4) Michael Auping, ‘Materiality and Gesture Make Space’ in Frank Stella, A Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art and Yale University Press, 2015, p36. (5) Ibid., Auping, p38. (6) Jean Wainwright and Frank Stella, 2017.