Frank Stella

National Medal of Arts recipient
Frank Stella

Photo by Richard Frasier

Transcript of conversation with Frank Stella

Frank Stella:  When I went away to school to Phillips Academy they offered classes in painting. So you had an art history class which was art history in the morning and painting in the afternoon and they had a studio so you had a studio class so that combination of art history and studio probably defines my way of living I guess or what I think about life because I can't work without thinking in a way and I think in a pretty conventional art historical way about painting, and then I have to go to the studio and make the paintings so you think and paint, paint and think. And it was just ingrained in me and I liked it, but there was one other thing about elite education and Andover. It had one other thing. Besides the overall educational excellence was the Addison Gallery of American Art, and so we had art history courses. We looked at slides and then walked upstairs and looked at real paintings and really good paintings too, talking about Sargent, Winslow Homer, the real thing, so you saw the real examples of real art, and then you went downstairs and went to work.

That was artist and National Medal of Arts recipient, Frank Stella, remembering his high school classes at Phillips Academy in Andover.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

For over five decades, Frank Stella has been pushing his art to unexpected places.  Born in 1936 in Malden, Masschusetts, Frank Stella's work often transcends boundaries among painting, printmaking, sculpture, and architecture. Arriving in New York City in the late 1950s, Frank Stella reacted against abstract expressionism (Think Jackson Pollack) - Stella was a minimalist, drawn to the flatness of the canvass, saying famously that a picture was "a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more.”

He was met with almost immediate commercial success and critical acclaim. By the 1980s, Frank Stella had given up minimalism; he was introducing relief into his art, incorporating mixed media and three-dimensionality. From this he moved to making free-standing sculpture for public spaces and developing architectural projects

Frank Stella‘s work is represented in major museums and collections around the world, and he remains the only living American artist to be honored with two retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  And in 2009, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

I spoke to Frank Stella when he came to Washington DC to receive his award. I began our conversation by asking him to tell me about the arts in New York City when he arrived there in 1958.

Frank Stella:  Well, to me, and I still think it's probably true, it must have been the second greatest time on earth for the <laughs> art world. The best time would have been obviously just after the Second World War when the war was over. And there was this turmoil and just sort of bubbling up of excellence as a result of the interaction of the refugees who had come from Western Europe and the Native American talent that was there, and it all came together and the result of that was the great painting of abstract expressionism. The best way I can explain it is a story that someone told me about--  All the stories in the art world or England seem to be about Peggy Guggenheim, but anyway she was helping out Jackson Pollock and she was going to give him a show but you know he's a pretty rough character and the paintings are kind of tough and she was also- she was friendly with everybody but she went to Piet Mondrian and she went to Mondrian and she said, "Well, what about Pollock?" and she showed him a couple of his paintings and she said, "I really want to give him a show" and he just looked at her and smiled and he said, "This is the kind of painting you never have to worry about. <laughs> Forget your worries."  <laughs> So Mondrian--  And he didn't even know Pollock then and he probably knew him afterwards but all he had to do was see a couple of Pollock's paintings and it was obvious. Want a Pollock story that doesn't have anything to do with Pollock?

Jo Reed:  Sure.

Frank Stella:  And its part of the literature and everything about it--is the struggle between Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton and we think of celebrity and everything in famous painters, but as far as I know, and I've just seen a few things, Thomas Hart Benton was as famous as you can be as an American artist. If Thomas Hart Benton painted a new painting--this is in the thirties--it was on the front page of the New York Times with a reproduction. I haven't seen a front page reproduction of an artist unless it sold for a world record or the artist dropped dead or something, but people would say, "Well, Pollock rebelled against Thomas Hart Benton and he was just a hack American regionalist painter and Pollock is the great American abstractionist," but they put up those paintings in--I forget--on Sixth Avenue. I forget which building it is, a big series of Benton's murals, and I must say that everything I thought about Benton and everything I think they really looked good, they had to look good to Pollock too, which is why there was a struggle, why he was able to work his way through Benton and fortunately come out on the other side. So it's not possible to struggle with something that's no good and come out good. And it's just another example of what happens over 50 years. Actually, your feelings change and you get more out of it if you're lucky enough to live longer.

Jo Reed:  Well, let's go back to some of your earliest work, your black paintings. You were concerned with the flatness. Is that right?

Frank Stella:  Yes, that's true. Yes- there was a notion about new painting and modernist painting of that time and the notion was pretty simple. There was the respect for the flatness of the surface and the respectfulness for the quality of the materials so it's all about directness. Now the issue about the flatness of the surface, well, it's obviously--  When you start, the painting is flat but they're talking about emphasizing the flatness of the surface in relation to the traditions of the window and perspective that goes back and actually about the planer recession and atmosphere qualities of depth in cubism. So there's a notion that you're advancing by emphasizing your surface, your working surface, and by emphasizing your working materials, the paint itself. Now who's to say?  Abstract expressionists-- sure they rubbed a lot of paint including some great things but there's plenty of paint work in Monet or Velasquez in everything so nothing is in that sense that new, but the issue of flatness might be new in the sense that wanting to bring it to the surface I think and I think it's not about the painting itself. The truth to materials I think is interesting, and to me one of the most wonderful things about it is it probably should have happened in Pollock but it did happen to Helen Frankenthaler, which is if you're very true to your materials and very true to your surface you get the opposite of what you probably should have gotten because when the paint in her pieces was absorbed in to the surface and the canvas it made the surface and the material one in a way that wasn't really flat. It created not exactly an optical atmosphere but it created a softness and a recession that was something that hadn't been there before so if you were fighting recession and you were emphasizing the surface you created something that was in between or new or different that was really wonderful. And that all happened because of following the directives, the truth to materials and the emphasis of flatness but it came out with just really fantastically inventive and great paintings and particularly of Helen Frankthaler.

Jo Reed:  What was your first major show?

Frank Stella:  The first major show was an exhibition that I showed in with two other painters and it was a show at Oberlin College and I showed three paintings there, one black painting and two so-called pre black paintings, and it was called “Three Young Americans at Oberlin College” and it had a catalog and an essay and everything. It was a professional presentation of my work. It took place six or eight months after I'd been working so it was a huge step, and it had an incidental effect or ancillary effect. For whatever reason my father decided to step up. He was impressed in some kind of way and he took the catalog down to the Malden Public Library and showed it to the librarian and she said, "Oh, well, we'll take this show here" and the Malden Public Library is the building by H.H. Richardson. It's called the Converse Library and Converse is- money is in the sneakers and Converse gave this building, and it is a beautiful building and it's the only thing in Malden that's left that's still beautiful. And part of the library has a gallery designed by H. H. Richardson, which was a beautiful space, and the show was quite dramatic because they had to take the front doors off the library to get the paintings in up to the gallery where there was plenty of room. So it made a dramatic impression so I guess I had a little flare for drama right from the beginning. <laughs>

Jo Reed:  Between 1970 and 1073, you created The Polish Village series, which was a big departure for you.

Frank Stella:  That was.

Jo Reed:  Can you describe the series and how you came to create it?

Frank Stella:  I can describe it. I can describe it on two levels. The most obvious level is what we talked about, flatness. This was an interest in becoming more involved in relief, so if you have a flat plane you can put other flat planes in front of it and you get a relief, which is sort of like a parallel plane relief, and then of course you can take those same planes and tilt them. Then you get a more dramatic sculptural form of relief. So it seemed to me that I could work with a flat version, a kind of modified straightforward relief version and a more dramatic relief version, and I was interested in giving up the total reliance on the flatness to carry me forward. It was part of a tricky business about thinking about geometry in the sense that the paintings before the Polish Village paintings were as I said basically diagrammatic but they were also geometrical but generally simplified geometric forms. But I had made one group of paintings called irregular polygons and it's a really pretty simple notion, but it turned out to be, historically speaking, if you look back at the drawings that were involved in making abstract shapes they were then turned in to paintings, say just, and you imagine a black cross floating on a white ground. The notion of this painting would be to imagine the same black cross, the same white ground. If you separate the two of them so you have a white square and a black cross and then you hold them in your hands they will kind of- and you push them together, you push the black cross in to the white rectangle, what happens is that instead of getting an example of one thing being on top of another you create another kind of visual space, which is a space in which the two things fit together, you can see that they fit together, but when it works well, when you get it right, there's a kind of visual tension in which the two forms come together and appear to be spring loaded. So you get the effect that the black cross that you've pushed in to the white square could be expelled. In other words, it could be a projectile coming out of the box or machine of the white square. And so white on white, black on black, that was the tradition, but I knew that this was another way of thinking and looking at the geometry, and I was pretty interested in it and I made a series of paintings but I found it hard to go anywhere with it. I don't know why. I sort of gave up on it. And then after I'd gone on to the- what were called the protractor paintings and those kind of shape paintings- the flatness was sort of giving up on me or I was giving up on it- and I started to think about the irregular polygon paintings and so I began to make drawings. And they began to get more complicated and it was a little bit hysterical for a while. They appeared to me to be more conventional and in fact they are more conventional- somehow I was able to work them and accept it and they're very close to the work of eastern European abstract painting. It was in the more traditional tradition of abstract art.

Jo Reed:  But why the idea of the Polish Village? Where did that come from?

Frank Stella:  The reason that it came about in the way that it did was Richard Meyer gave me a present--I think it was a birthday present--and it was a book published in Poland I think in the early sixties describing having reconstruction drawings and photographs of synagogues in Poland and probably some in Russia too that were destroyed by the Germans moving across Poland in to Russia. And that got me interested in the idea because that was actually the trace of abstraction. Abstract art developed from Moscow to Warsaw to Berlin and then back the other way and that was the root of the development of abstract art in the beginning- well in to the middle of the early twentieth century, and that idea of abstraction just stuck in my head and then the actuality of the drawings of the reconstruction of- and how the synagogues were made. I invented a word--I think I invented the word; there certainly can't be this word--interlockingness, <laughs> whatever that means, but it was about the carpentry and about the craftsmanship that went in to the joining and building of the wooden synagogues and basically of the structure that was built.

Jo Reed:  Well it looks as though you're actually building paintings.

Frank Stella:  That was the result, yes. I guess I could have made it all less complicated. Yes, that was the result because in dealing with the issue of the relief, which was a given, I decided that I would build the painting and then paint it, yes. It was about building paintings. Which is- got to be a little tricky because they were intended to be paintings so I was building paintings.

Jo Reed:   But you were very clear that they were reliefs; they were meant to be seen front on.

Frank Stella:  They look like a lot of architecture.

Jo Reed:  They actually do and you know where I'm heading because then you moved in to free form or freestanding sculpture. Can you talk about that trajectory?

Frank Stella:  Well, it was pretty long coming working with the reliefs and everything but the turning point was just becoming interested in sculpture per se, but the real difference was as ultimately print making got really interesting for me working with Ken Tyler, working with Dick Polich at Tallix, in both cases we started very slowly making small things and fooling around, but actually as I got a feeling for what was available in the factory setting or in the printing setting where they really had equipment it was actually I guess a question of becoming comfortable with heavy equipment I guess or mechanical equipment. It took me a long time to adjust to the use of it but once I did it seemed to work pretty well for me.

Jo Reed:  We have to talk about BMW and the car project just very briefly. Did you have fun with that?

Frank Stella:  Well, it was fun but it was very indirect. It was a small program started by, anyway, his first name is Herve. He was a racing driver and auctioneer in Paris. Herve had the idea to have an art car at the Le Mans race, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the first car was Calder. Calder did a car which was quite nice, and then BMW was satisfied with it. It was just an idea and they said, "Okay."  It seemed like a good way to get a little bit of publicity when the car wasn't that fast, and it seemed like fun and I worked on a design I had, which was a fairly simple graphic design and we cut it up in a lot of pieces. Actually, the design that we did it took us two or three weeks of a lot of cutting and pasting. Nowaday on the computer we could have done it in about seven seconds <laughs> but it might not have looked quite as nice but it could.

Jo Reed:  In 1993 you created a series of murals, 10,000 sq feet of murals to be exact, for Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre. How did that come about?

Frank Stella:  I don't know how it happened. Well, look. David Mirvish is a kind of miracle maker and I guess there was no plan. That was the beauty of it. The building was going up and David said, "Let's go. I want to do this and I want to do that" and as long as it was- I could keep up to the construction schedule, in other words if I could make things quickly enough so that they could be installed and fit in to the construction schedule, that pretty much wherever there was blank space we could put something in there.

Jo Reed:  And you did.

Frank Stella:  And some of it was pretty nice and David was really pretty easy to work with and it was in- a lucky thing about I didn't get rich and David didn't get poor <laughs> either with the project.

Jo Reed:  Well, your movement in to architecture--

Frank Stella:  I didn't really move in to architecture. I made a lot of things that looked like architecture and I had a lot of sculpture and relief and I began to try out some ideas, and I was invited to do work on a couple of projects and I got involved with some very sophisticated engineers and designers, but for one reason or another the projects never got built. The one that was a real project was for the Groninger Museum in Holland and we had it worked out and it was complicated but not that big a deal and it was going to be covered in Teflon, and then some guy said, "Oh, but what if they stick a knife in the Teflon?" which is like saying, "Yeah, what are you worried about the Teflon covering?"  Anyway, it was things like that.

Jo Reed:  You had a wonderful show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Painting into Architecture.

Frank Stella:   Yes, and that was satisfying enough for me even though he always said, "Well, you didn't actually build anything."  I worked on a couple of projects that we really could- I know could have been built and we even priced them out and they could have been built and it had the plumbing, the bathrooms and all that stuff. They were buildable.

Jo Reed:  Different rewards, different challenges when you're doing that?

Frank Stella:  It's a little bit different and it's working partly with other people and I did like it for a while but then it gets frustrating when it never works and then--  I just got to build some very sophisticated and very beautiful models so- but I was happy with that but then I don't know what the next step would have been from the model to the reality.

Jo Reed:  Let me ask you something. What was the attraction to abstraction for you?

Frank Stella:  That's probably not a bad question. There was none. There was no alternative to abstraction for me. I was born in 1936. There was a kind of polarity between figuration and abstraction and when that expression of that polarity was shown to me or put in front of me I just said, "Well, I like the abstract so that's what I want to do." 

That was artist and 2009 National Medal of Arts recipient Frank Stella. 

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "Padded Walls (reEdit)" by Floating Spirits from the album, Transmit, licensed through Creative Commons.

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Next time, a conversation with playwright and lyricist, Jeffrey Sweet.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.









One of the most well-regarded postwar American artists still working, Frank Stella discusses his five-decade career in the visual arts, from paintings to sculptures to murals to architecture.  [21:40]