Undoubtedly one of the influential figures of American art, Frank Stella’s masterpieces broadened the horizons of contemporary art to make way for his ‘maximalist’ 3D explorations of colour. His progressive approach to materials, including the use of aluminium, cars and generic household paint, changed the course of abstract art in the 1950s.
In honour of his 84th birthday last week, here are five things you didn’t know about Frank Stella.
1. The titles of his paintings are extremely important
The seemingly endless abyss of Stella’s signature ‘Black Paintings’ are adorned with cryptic titles. Die Fahne Hoch! (which translates to ‘Hoist the Flag’) is the opening line to Horst Wessel Lied, the Nazi party anthem. The painting also alludes to Jasper John’s work, Flag which seeks to overturn bourgeois sensibilities and answer society’s harder questions about humanity. The utilitarian and imposing nature of Stella’s paintings were described by the artist as ‘dark, very dark’, therefore ‘some of them needed dark titles.’
Frank Stella, Die Fahne Hoch!, 1959
2. His works were inspired by literature
Few artists have been able to suitably capture the grandeur of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and yet Stella’s paintings and lithographs manage to do just that. The choice to illustrate Melville’s iconic novel wasn’t merely due to its aesthetic potential, but also its relation to Stella’s artistic career. The book explores themes of achieving intangible ‘greatness’, a concept mirrored in Stella’s quest to stand out from the Abstract Expressionists’ influence.
Frank Stella, Moby Dick from The Waves, 1989
3. His painting career started with boats and houses
Encouraged by his sixty-hour-a-week-working father, Stella learnt the importance of manual labour from an early age. Stella’s artistic inclination was quickly realised after experiencing the power of painting from redecorating houses and boats. This early DIY experience primed his creative process, as he approached his works in the same way he would redecorating a house; using household paint.
Frank Stella Portrait
4. His Pinstripe Paintings are done freehand
Despite appearing straight, Stella’s Pinstripe Paintings are completed without the use of a ruler or masking tape. He achieves these optically straight lines by deviating slightly as he draws to create subtle bows in a stretched canvas.
Frank Stella, Marrakech, 1964
5. His works often feature vaginas
The curvature of Stella’s works have often been said to be representative of labia, inspired by his many relations with women and, well, his father. Before you jump to conclusions, Stella’s dad was a gynaecologist, and when asked whether these labial images were indeed there, Stella simply responded ‘I’m not going to deny [it]’.
Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967