The Phaidon Folio

Q&A: Frank Stella on Why (and How) His Pieces Since the '90s Are Anything But Minimalist


Q&A: Frank Stella on Why (and How) His Pieces Since the '90s Are Anything But Minimalist
Frank Stella, Image via Widewalls

Frank Stella—one of the most well-known names in Modern art history—has evolved quite a bit since he first made the flat, color-blocked, linear geometric abstract paintings that made him famous in the 1960s. For Stella, his work of the '60s was exactly that—work that was right for the 1960s, but that would be outdated if continued in the following decades. "Stella now occupies a position similar to that of Kandinsky late in his career," writes Roberta Smith for the New York Times. "He changed the history of art with his early work, but kept on moving." Over the past 60 years, Stella has produced thousands of works, categorized in over sixty different series and ranging in medium from painting to sculpture to 3-D rendering.

Just last month, Phaidon released a Frank Stella monograph, covering the artist's seminal early works as well as his recent developments. From the brand new book, we've excerpted  a recent interview with historian Andrianna Campbell wherein Stella speaks about how a cigar inspired some of his latest works, about the process of fabricating an ephemeral subject, and about how digital rendering and geometry have become the artist's go-to tools.


While walking through your survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 2015, Roberta Smith asked me what work I’d choose to discuss if I were to write about the show. I said Die Fahne hoch! (1959). She just smiled—an uncharacteristic smirk—and said maybe I could think of something less obvious. Looking around I was struck by Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3] (1999), with its irregular scale shifts, so much color, so much gesture and a radical redefinition of space. The newer work didn’t make sense to so many people for so long: what happened to the elegant striped paintings and the irregular polygons? Now, a generation of younger artists often bring up these paintings that you’ve been making since the early 1990s, and they tell me there’s so much to mine there. What brought about this transition from the Minimalism—or reductive abstraction—in your early work and the decorative decadence of your current practice?

Well with Minimalism, I was there, but I’m not there now, except in a literal way: in the paintings that are extant from then. When you see them, you can say, ‘Oh, that’s from the 1960s.’ But the 1960s didn’t live on, and so I think it doesn’t have any real resonance anymore, except in the work that’s made to look like art, but isn’t art. I didn’t want my work to live on continuously as a conversation or product of the 1960s, the product of who I was as a very young artist.

Can you talk about the making of Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]?

We used engraving—many of those lines are engraved lines. It’s a two-dimensional interpretation of smoke. We hired an engraver from Sweden, who’d worked on the country’s currency. He used some kind of digital process. The smoke rings are fairly simple to render in that way.

Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], Image Courtesy of Art History News

Smoke is so important in your later work. Your interest in smoke originated when you were smoking a cigar during the time that you gave the Charles Norton lectures series at Harvard in 1982–84. From the smoke, you began to rethink the working space of painting. Smoke is tangible, and intangible: it interfaces structure. The problem of space and painting—which in the past had been tied to perspective, illusionism, architecture, sitedness, objecthood, opticality on the surface—could now be approached in an interactive way. And the photographic capture of smoke, a gambit, which led to the eventual digital rendering of it (through AutoCad and other digital mapping programs) between 1991 and 1992, allows you to generate non-Euclidean scalar and pictorial delineations.

Yes, but we weren’t trying to get at the digital look, because that’s kind of obvious. We were trying to get at another type of space.

Exactly. What were the first computer processes you used to reconfigure your relationship with space? I know the smoke sculptures came first, but what were the two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional formats? How do these contribute to your conception of working space in painting and the ways in which we started to interface with pictorial space around the late 1980s and early 1990s?

When we first started with the smoke rings, it was as if I could envision what I wanted to do before it was possible to do it, so we faked it a bit until 1991, when Michael [O’Rourke] figured out how to digitally convert the photographs of smoke and I incorporated them into the "French Mining Townseries. It’s one version or another of a 3-D prototype but it’s not all rapid prototyping. For instance, in Fishkill (1995), there was a smoke ring and that was made from a cast, because that’s the way it was done in the early 1990s. By 1999 in Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], the smoke ring is a newer, primarily digital version.

fishkillFrank Stella, Fishkill (1995)

In your work, it’s often the intersection of so many different types of mark-making that’s striking. For you, these works are still paintings. The illusionism of the smoke rings or even the bas-relief of striation marks in Mersin XX (2001) are engaged with the legacy of the drawn mark or the painted brushstroke. Layers of paint emerge flecked and variegated; this is innovative. These deep relief lines—are they a happy mistake? Could you get rid of them in the casting?

No, we liked them.

You liked them and so they’re deliberate.

We could get rid of them, but that’s the way I wanted it done.

Rapid prototyping is a set sequence of processes that’s used in fabrication and derived from computer data of a three-dimensional rendering. I wonder if this kind of sequence of scale modeling is integral to your work, like the found small structure making up the larger structure in your processes in the 1960s? You’ve been dealing with issues of space since the 1960s.

Well, in The Michael Kolhaas Curtain (2008), space is way more complicated than what you see. Even with some of these small sketches, rapid prototyping can be a way of introducing something unknown into the work of art. It is very physical. Doing it is fairly tricky compared to how it comes across. Initially, it was just a way to create some kind of inner expression from what you can do with material. We cast all kinds of things. In Mersin XX we used sand casting to generate the lines that emerge from the wax. Those are from extruded wax, so we use a lot of processes, but they’re all fairly straightforward. You can view the processes—so-called computer processes—which are relatively primitive.

For you, the computer is merely a tool that enables you get at this idea of floating space, interactive space, a means to control the feeling of floating unmoored in the work of art. I wonder if using the computer allows you further entry into the illusionism that we see in the two-dimensional plane?

I don’t do the computer work. I draw and this gets translated into AutoCad or some other digital-imaging program. It’s merely a tool. So I don’t think about it; I only think about the imagery. Then I have to arrange it in space, when it gets to be physical.

Image 4Feneralia from the "Imaginary Places" Series (1994–97), Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

But you acknowledge that the computer is the only way to get this digital effect that you’re after—not the look of interfacing but the non-Euclidean feel of that space? When we look at the works that incorporate smoke rings, there’s an interfolding—almost a liquidity—more so than say, some of the more geometrically rigid earlier paintings.

Yes, each is different.

Would you make work for the internet?

No. If it’s used for information, it’s fine with me, but I find the aesthetic uses of it... it’s going to happen, something inevitably will be good. But I don’t see it and it’s hard for me to see it.

You or your assistants just use the tools to map certain geometries that you weren’t able to do before computers came along.

Yes, we do very complicated things that are done with three-dimensional programming. I drew them and then we weren’t able to actualize them until later. The question is, do you want to spend that much time doing it, and do you really need to have it done in elephant ivory? I don’t know why they use ivory, but ivory works quite well for doing complicated things. For me, it’s a geometric form that’s been made organic—actually it was a shell originally and so it’s gone both ways: it’s gone from hard geometry to organic expression and then back to hard geometry.

We wanted to digitize the smoke rings and they laughed at us when we asked them. But the point wasn’t to make the images. What was interesting, but what never happened was to use the kind of modeling that they use for weather forecasts, which is to change the conditions: to see what would happen to the smoke ring if you set it on fire or watched it drip or something. I wanted to do it but it didn’t happen and I couldn’t find a good enough way to approach it. I’m not sure exactly why. It’s to do with the limit of your experience and the way you feel things. Actually, strangely enough, on the computer, the way you put these elements together almost inevitably, for me anyway, has to do with a kind of cross between equilibrium and symmetry.

Anyway, it pretty much almost always comes out how it would come out in your hands if you could put the pieces together. So you shouldn’t get beyond the idea of the lump of clay in your hands. Because if the clay really could be saved and restretched, would you bend it around the back of your neck? It should stay within the limits of your hands and then the extension of your hands with your body. And if you’re clever you can... you know like the guys in India, who can hold things with their feet? That would be nice. You could use all four limbs. It could get really complicated, but you don’t do that very much. The tools allow you to get something different in your hands.

Could you talk about the shift from, say, the pieces you were working on in the 1970s to what started happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s in terms of that kind of fluidity and biomorphism?

The earlier works are plain geometry and these later paintings are all about surface: how you work on the surface and make more complicated, freer surfaces rather than always a rigid surface. Often we talk about the difference between Euclidean geometry and the geometry of curves—rubber space, rubber surfaces—so I wanted in these later paintings surfaces that are stretchable, malleable and manipulable.

Is this something that you’re reading about?

Yes. It’s really about computing the faces of polygons.

What is the text you’re reading?

It’s a book on Euler’s Formula. The text isn’t very interesting. The idea is what counts, and it allows for a lot of different ways of doing things. So you can get some idea of what you might do with surfaces and spaces, or where the artwork might go.

How long have you had this interest in geometry? It’s an obvious touchstone in the work, but do you have any particular memories of being drawn to it when you were young?

No, I wasn’t like others in the 1960s. It wasn’t geometry that interested me; that was a means to an end. The thing about geometry is that you need it to measure and to be able to build things. Geometry is just part of measuring and building surfaces. You paint on surfaces, basically, and if you don’t paint on surfaces, or if you take a surface for granted, then you’re creating surfaces, or painting on top of the surfaces you create. It’s the basic ingredient for making paintings or art.

I know you don’t want to talk about the stripe paintings anymore, but may I ask a direct question and you won’t get upset?

Probably. [Laughter]

The early paintings were about this idea of a kind of found measure, right? Do you think that in some ways you’re thinking more about surface now than about measurement, if they’re both related to geometry?

Well, in the stripe paintings, I picked a simple geometry. It’s easy measurements. And then I painted on it. I made the surface, which was also relatively simple because it was repetitive. So that was trying to make it as easy for myself as I could.


Image 5Frank Stella, Cipango, Lithograph (1972)

But now there’s all of this complexity in terms of this kind of warped surface, so maybe your interest is...

Well, in the end it’s all the same. You have to make it look all right.

[Laughter] That’s true. I guess you can tell who the art historian is in this conversation! But your relationship to geometry has changed during your career. Visually it manifests in different ways.

No, I don’t think it’s changed. You can’t fabricate anything anymore unless you provide the people who are going to work for you with the geometry. I just think at some point you need to know about whatever the people who are helping you are doing. That’s the way life is now.

So you have to know what’s possible in terms of the machines in the studio?

Yes. Mutable space is what I want to happen even in the prototyping stage, but we don’t ever really get there in machine fabrication, because in the end, after we do all of those things, and we cast them, they emerge rigid. You have to move things around and play with them.

You’ve been working with a new type of plastic that’s a little bit more wobbly and elastic.

I’ve always been interested in new materials. The new plastic is more flexible, but it’s not working that well.


It’s fine in the model size, but it doesn’t lend itself to scaling up. Scale changes shift everything.

You’ve been writing about and exploring pictorial space for over half a century, but there is a space in the later work, as I understand it, that doesn’t stem from a phenomenological interest—making the body aware of its relationship to the space in the painting—but rather where a centripetal contraction and also a centrifugal refusal happens. When you combine the almost hypnotic illusionism of the smoke rings, the biomorphic gesture and areas of at surface that won’t allow you in, you get this mutable working space. I like to think of it as a threshold. It’s the emphasis on surface alongside the imagery, as you’ve said, working against each other or in tandem, that makes this space disorienting and creates niches here and there that allow for contemplation and even habitation. The scale, the monumental size, allows the viewer to occupy these niches in almost an architectonic manner. There’s a certain amount of generosity in that approach. 

It comes from making marks on a surface—a surface you can see so that viewers can find their way out. As long as you do research into the surface, anything that you make on the surface is generous.


Vortex'Vortex Engraving' China Plate, 2000, Available for purchase on Artspace $1650

I like this idea.

After all, the marks that you’ve made get stolen from the surface, then become places of contact.

The introduction of digital space into the work that happened around the time that you did the Norton lectures, when you started thinking about these ideas and you created a tool to make that happen through photography and smoke, for me, is an exploration of the threshold of virtual space. So I want to kind of go back and think about what you discussed in some of your writings as being the potential in painting and how you saw that potential as being very fraught in the 1990s specifically.

Well, I think that in the 1990s, painting was losing traction—at least in the amount of attention it was getting and the effect that it had on the art that was being made. The older painters at that time like Helen Frankenthaler, the color-field painters, were invested in what seemed to me to be open and beautiful, but even this was disappearing. Painting was reverting to being, if it was painting at all, solely gestural: one could think here of Schnabel and Basquiat. This was timely painting and plenty interesting, but it wasn’t very open; it was, again, sort of digging into the painting rather than letting the paint move. Conceptual painting. There was a loss of the dynamic that might have had potential. To me, it seemed obvious that the new emphasis in painting didn’t have that much of a chance of moving forward.

So what I call the virtual, you designate as potential. (There must be a link to Agamben there somewhere... "a light that strives to reach us but can not.") This openness you discuss seems related to the fluidity we talked about before. In the early 1990s, the path forward that you saw was an emphasis on variegated materials but with an openness that the color-field painters found solely using paint. Your incorporation of illusionism is a discontinuation from your early work; you started talking about illusionism a lot in the late 1980s and 1990s—how to bring that back into painting?

Yes, but what I talked about isn’t completely relevant to what I did. Illusionism was never a reality for me, because if there’s an object and that object is physical, then the illusionism is given. For example, Targowica I (1973): there’s no need for illusionism there—the light has it’s own illusionism.

Of course, but we’ve spoken of the intensification of illusionism in Renaissance art, whether according to Nagel and Wood in an anachronistic juxtaposition of  ‘virtual life’ or in terms of perspective. Your large-scale paintings, even The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain, integrate painted forms or sprayed forms that appear three-dimensional, or half relief, or as if they’re interfacing space. Even if there is a given illusionism, those traffic in an increased illusionism that I would call the virtual space of painting—and somewhere between the virtual and physical world lies painting’s potential.

You’re right. And we tried this idea in those pieces that are central to the "Imaginary Places" series. Think, for instance, of Cantahar (1998). In some of the "Kleist Paintings," the illusionism was the illusionism of the collage. So if the collage had a depth of, say, a quarter of an inch and you blew it up four times, then you were painting a shadow representing an inch. So, there was illusionism that was a mechanical illusionism or even a digital one, depending on the tools you used to blow it up.

The Michael Kolhaas CurtainThe Michael Kohlhass Curtain, Image courtesy of Arte-Paisaje

In previous discussions of mechanical illusionism and its relationship to collage, you’ve made a connection to printmaking. Could you expand on how prints—in the way in which they repeat patterning—allowed you to play with or envision the digital illusionism that we’re talking about in the "Imaginary Places" series?

Patterning is basically a flat device with several different layers that, yes, generates surface illusion, but on the other hand needs a sense of tactility, which becomes a contact point for viewing. It’s not about depth versus illusionism in a binary; you need to have a spherical illusionism or the kind of illusionism you would get if you’re dealing with perspective or that could be warped.

Illusionism as it relates to motion? So, maybe a kind of energy? You’ve written about this idea of pictorial energy versus a physical energy. Is that something you see in the "Imaginary Places" series?

Well, I’d like to see it. I want to get there.

You think the works are successful when they have that?

Yes. I think that’s what it’s all about and it doesn’t matter too much how you get it. I worried when color-field painting and the expansive gestural painting seemed to disappear in favor of a lot of heavy-handed muddiness and then a lot of conceptual painting. I wanted to find a way to achieve pictorial energy.



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