Frank Stella
Biography and Minimalist Paintings of Abstract Expressionist Painter.

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Stella produced examples of concrete art.
For other abstract works like those
produced by Frank Stella, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Frank Stella (b.1936)


Schooling and Education
Minimalist Paintings
Mature Works and Shaped Canvases
Later Years
Retrospective Exhibitions and Collections

Paintings by Frank Stella
are also widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For non representational works,
see: Non-Objective Art.
For schools & styles,
see: Abstract Art Movements.


The American painter and printmaker Frank Stella received early acclaim for his unique minimalist style of Abstract Expressionism, based on his series of Black Paintings (1958-60), in which black stripes were divided by very thin lines. In 1959, a number of his abstract paintings were included in the Three Young Americans exhibition at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, while several were also included in the Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Later in the same year, Leo Castelli, the leading modern art dealer in NYC, became Stella's official sales representative. After his black and white abstract paintings, Stella produced a series of Aluminum Paintings (1960) and Copper Paintings (1960-61), before moving into 'shaped canvases' with bright hard-edge colour, such as his Irregular Polygon (1965-67) and Protractor (1967-71) series. He also devoted much of his energy to printmaking. Later, Stella turned his back on flat abstract art, in favour of relief works using wood and other materials - see his Polish Village series (1970-73). Also, he started using aluminum as the main support for his pictures, which became more complex and flamboyant, thanks to Day-Glo colours, curved forms and gestural brushwork. By the 1990s, Stella's reliefs had been superceded by regular three-dimensional sculpture, which itself led to several major decorative schemes involving architectural designs. One of the youngest artists to be given a Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Stella remains one of the most innovative of abstract painters in 20th-century American art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


Schooling & Education

Frank Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts, the oldest of three children of Italian-American parents. He learned how to paint from the abstract artist Patrick Morgan, while attending high school at Phillips Academy in Andover. He continued taking art courses at Princeton University while studying for a degree in history, combining these classes with visits to New York art galleries, where he absorbed the aesthetics of leading modern artists such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56) and Franz Kline (1910-62), as well as Jasper Johns (b.1930), whose geometric imagery of targets, flags and so on, was especially inspirational. In 1958 Stella graduated from Princeton and settled in New York.

Minimalist Paintings

Stella opened a studio in the Lower East Side of New York, and almost overnight attracted huge attention from the art world. His novel method of painting, with its monochromatic palette and flat surface, was quite different from the textured brushwork and gesturalism of Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and De Kooning (1904-97). According to Stella, a painting was no more than "a flat surface with paint on it," thus associating himself with the view of art as an object unto itself, rather than merely a representation of something else. By focusing exclusively on form, rather than content, his early paintings helped to define the coming Minimalism art movement. Indeed, his first major works, known as the "Black Paintings" (1958-1960), consisted of little more than stripes of black house paint laid out in stark repetitive, patterns. But the art critics loved them, and so at a mere 23 years of age, Stella achieved overnight fame. The Museum of Modern Art in New York chose four of his works for its Sixteen Americans exhibition (1959-1960) and acquired one oil painting for its permanent collection. Meanwhile, in 1961, Stella acquired a wife - the celebrated art critic Barbara Rose.


Mature Works and Shaped Canvases

After completing his series of Black Paintings, Stella moved ahead with his series of Aluminum Paintings (1960), Copper Paintings (1960-1961), and 'Benjamin Moore' paintings, for some of which he fashioned his own non-rectangular shaped canvases. These works continued to employ the striped motif of the Black Paintings, but broadened it to include brighter hard-edged colours, and more intricate circular forms, particularly in the Irregular Polygon (1965-1967) and Protractor (1967-1971) series. In 1964, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94) curated an important exhibition for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring developments in contemporary art. He included works by Stella, along with works by abstract painters like Kenneth Noland (b.1924), Al Held (b.1928), Ellsworth Kelly (b.1923), and Jack Youngerman (b.1926), all of whom were beginning to be associated with the new Hard Edge Painting, a non-gestural variant of the broader trend known as Post-Painterly Abstraction (PPA). Greenberg himself described PPA as being linear in design, bright in colour, devoid of any incident or detail, with a tendency to draw the eye beyond the limits of the canvas (a perfect description of Stella's shaped canvases). Most important it was anonymous in execution, with no traces of brushwork or surface texture, in line with the painter's desire to abandon the emotionalism of the older forms of Abstract Expressionism.

Stella was also represented in three other important exhibitions that helped to characterize 1960s art, including The Shaped Canvas (1964-65) and Systemic Painting (1966), both held at the Guggenheim Museum New York. In 1965, he participated in a major group exhibition called The Responsive Eye, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Focusing on the illusion of movement and the interaction of colour, it also included works by Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Liberman, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. In 1970, Stella was the youngest artist ever to be awarded a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

During the 70s, he continued innovating - this time by rejecting his former emphasis on the flat, 2-D nature of the picture plane, and incorporating collage, felt, wood and other materials into the new 'relief paintings' of his Polish Village series (1970-1973). His next set of paintings, the Indian Birds series (1977-1979), incorporated painted aluminum forms. Stella's new approach, with its interlocking clusters of shape, material and colour, amounted to an investigation into how impure a painting can be and still be a painting. He continued to steal ideas and methods from sculpture, yet always created 'pictures' - his works typically have their back to the wall and are viewed from the front. As he put it: "A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere." Meantime in 1973, after having a printmaking studio installed in his New York house, he devoted an increasing amount of time to developing his print skills, combining numerous printmaking and drawing techniques in the process.

Later Years

During the 1980s and 90s, Stella's 3-D paintings became even bolder, more colourful and more complex. His extraordinarily diverse output included everything from metal reliefs, to giant sculptures, to woodcuts and etching. In 1987 he received a second Retrospective at New York's MoMA. In 1992-93, he was responsible for the decoration of the Princess of Wales Theatre, in Toronto, including a massive 10,000 square-foot mural. All this was followed by freestanding bronze and steel sculpture, at which point he began to design architectural structures as part of the presentation. Such works included the monumental sculpture, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel (1998-2001, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

Stella continues to live and work in New York.

Retrospective Exhibitions and Collections

Frank Stella's paintings have been the subject of several important retrospectives in Europe and Japan, as well as the United States, and he is represented in a number of the world's best art museums. In 1983-4, at the invitation of Harvard University, he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures. His six talks were published by Harvard University Press in 1986.

• For other exponents of shaped canvas or hard edge painting, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more about abstract expressionist painting, see: Homepage.

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