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Rings of Art

Frank Stella, one of the most renowned artists of the late twentieth century, has been using cigar smoke as an inspiration.
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

It is a rainy May morning in Frank Stella's cavernous studio in Manhattan's East Village. The click of sprockets on a reel-to-reel projector echoes in the darkened room. The image cast on a standing portable screen is of a suspended, grayish-white swirling mass. In the darkness, the silhouettes of some 13 girls and boys seated on aluminum chairs in front of the screen are visible. Frank Stella and his wife Harriet stand together behind the group, while an assistant operates the low-tech video equipment. A high-pitched young voice speculates, "It looks like cells." "I think it's water." "Silk!" guesses a third.

"Actually, they are smoke rings," Stella reveals.

Thirteen-year-old Peter Stella has brought his art class on a field trip to his father's studio. The abstract artist is relating how the smoke ring imagery found its way into his recent work. "Blowing smoke rings while smoking a cigar, I observed the smoke turning and spinning on itself," he explains. "It's a vortex. In the process of becoming this smoke ring, and then bifurcating and dissolving, a lot of interesting things happen, and beautiful, fluid forms are created. It's a nice image, both to look at and work with."

It's not quite as simple as that. Stella blows smoke rings into a cube lined with black velvet. Still cameras in each of the six sides enable Stella to shoot the smoke rings from all angles at regular intervals. A computer scans and analyzes the still photographs then renders both two- and three-dimensional representations of the form, the latter a sort of layered construction diagram. Stella then generates many printed versions of these: some done by currency engravers in Sweden, others enlarged and printed in an array of colors by lithographer Ken Tyler, who has worked with Stella since 1967. Stella can draw on these printed images with a crayon and liquid tusche or paint on them with a brush or spray paint. The forms become part of busy collages that are photographed and then blown up, projected on an even larger surface and finally painted. From the layered construction diagrams he also builds solid plastic models, which he uses to make sculptures.

Smoke rings are just some of the configurations Stella weaves into his various works in progress. There is a sort of organized chaos in his light-filled two-story studio, which contains scaffolding and tables piled with paint containers, masking tape, books, small-scale architectural models, paintings, sculptures and cigars. He is composing what will be two-sided paintings on large, freestanding curved fiberglass walls, showing at Manhattan's Leo Castelli gallery in November. He is also making outdoor metal sculptures for a late fall exhibition inaugurating the new Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, designing mammoth murals for a 55-story office tower in Singapore and for a hotel in Seoul, and producing a series of prints. This eclectic productivity is standard Stella, who in a nearly 40-year career has explored painting, sculpture, collage, relief painting and architecture, employing an equally diverse assemblage of materials and techniques.

The artist sees the shifts in his work as part of a process: "Each painting takes a kind of concentration, and you work on an idea, and then you work on it more, until suddenly it somehow exhausts itself. Or it exhausts you. But usually in the process, something about it sends you off in a new direction. And you have to change the way you're doing it in order to explore the new idea further," Stella says, referring to his ever-increasing variety of mediums. "Things do change, but [they are] conditioned by what went before. They're just continuations of things you're working on that sort of permute themselves."

When asked about Stella, architect Robert Kahn refers to Isaiah Berlin's essay on Leo Tolstoy, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." It is based on the concept that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. "Frank, like Tolstoy, is a fox," remarks Kahn of his mentor, friend and sometime client. "While many artists pursue a singular idea, Frank's work has consistently expanded and evolved, according to his view at a particular moment. He is completely unencumbered by fashion or what is popular. Frank actually makes the moment. He captures it and helps to define it."

This was certainly true of Stella's 1958 New York debut. Fresh out of Princeton, he came to New York and rented a former jeweler's shop on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. He began using ordinary house paint to paint symmetrical black stripes on canvas. Called the Black Paintings, they are credited with paving the way for the minimal art movement of the 1960s. By the fall of 1959, Dorothy Miller of The Museum of Modern Art had chosen four of the austere pictures for inclusion in a show called Sixteen Americans. The museum paid $900 for one canvas entitled The Marriage of Reason and Squalor. In 1993, the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art purchased another Black Stella for a record $5 million.

The original asking price for a Black Painting was $75, which Stella established himself in the summer of 1959. "Thomas Hoving [the art historian] had been teaching at Princeton and had just been hired as a curator by The Metropolitan Museum of Art," Stella recounts today. "He came down to look at my paintings and sort of liked them. He pointed to one and asked how much it would cost. I looked at the seven [feet] by five [feet] painting, did some quick arithmetic, and said, 'Well, $75.' He explained that he and his wife were newly married and just moving to New York, so he'd have to discuss it with her. I thought 'Oh boy, maybe I'll sell a painting!' The next day he called and said, since they were just starting out they really couldn't afford a painting like that."

Hoving has since come around. In an article in the Summer 1995 issue of Cigar Aficionado, he declared Stella's work one of this generation's most worthwhile art investments. Soon after Hoving's rejection, a discouraged Stella gave the painting away to the writer Michael Fried, thinking it couldn't be worth anything if he could not sell it to a man of Thomas Hoving's means for a mere $75. It now hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art's The New Wing for Modern Art.


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