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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

(continued from page 1)

In the summer of 1959, Leo Castelli, the Italian-born art dealer already showing Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, invited the 23-year-old Stella to be on his gallery's roster of cutting-edge artists. Stella's fresh approach continued to develop. Using metallic paint on geometrically shaped canvases, he did groups in aluminum, copper and purple. Sticking with stripes and Benjamin Moore house paint, he began using brighter colors for a series of Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes in 1962-63.

Although these are smaller in scale than his present work, and more architectonic, Stella says, "I don't think they're that different from what I'm working on now--the colors turn around and there are a lot of parts moving. So it's about action and motion--it seems to be basically the same sensibility." In his view, great painting creates space and light. "By and large, the paintings are actually static. It is the artist who sets it up so you can have the experience of motion and action, space and light, in the painting. That's what art is about." Castelli, who has represented Stella for 36 years, asserts, "He is one of the great geniuses of our time. He is very inventive, and that has never let up."

Also not subsiding is Stella's stream of exotic, euphonic titles. Names like Saskatoon, Ossipee, Quathlamba, Zinglantz and Hooloomooloo label his pieces. He appears to have an affinity for double vowels, z's and q's. "I guess I like the sound of them, but I like the way they look too," he admits. Stella relies on his instincts in all aspects of his work, perceiving each piece as an enterprise.

His compositions became curvilinear with his Protractor Series, begun in 1967. Done in rainbow, fan and interlace patterns, they were named after ancient circular-plan cities of the Near East such as Ctesiphon, Hiraqla and Firuzabad. Stella continued to experiment with round forms, putting them on square and rectangular canvases in the Saskatchewan Series. In the 1970s, the Polish Village paintings were named after synagogues that had been destroyed in Poland by the Nazis. Stella then began etching and painting brightly patterned metal reliefs known as the Brazilian Series, Exotic Birds works and Indian Birds works. His Cones and Pillars were metal reliefs in those shapes with Italian titles from Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales. Chapter titles from Moby Dick identify a late 1980s series of mixed-media abstract constructions and lithographs with a lot of wave imagery.

Stella names his work carefully. His own surname is Italian for star, which somehow seems auspicious. Stella became a star by accident, not by design. Art critics have commented that, like Picasso, he seems to have been born in the right place at the right time.

Stella was born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, to first-generation American parents (his paternal grandparents were Sicilian and his maternal, Calabrian). His father, Frank, was a gynecologist in Malden, who worked his way through medical school by painting department store interiors. He viewed painting as an avocation, not a career. He sent his son, Frank, the eldest of three children, to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a good education that would prepare him for a respectable profession. There, in a studio art program that provided students with unlimited supplies of materials and great freedom to experiment, Frank began to paint. His father (with whom he remained close until his death in 1979) encouraged him to go to the college of his choice, but said the only three he would pay for were Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Stella chose Princeton for its proximity to the New York post-Abstract Expressionist art scene.

Upon graduating and moving to New York in 1958, Stella became friendly with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He and sculptor Carl André were already friends from Princeton. Stella also struck up friendships with the architects Richard Meier and Philip Johnson. In the early 1960s, he met and married his first wife, the art critic Barbara Rose, who was then a Columbia graduate student. They had two children, Rachel and Michael. The couple divorced in 1969. Nine years later, Stella married Harriet McGurk, a pediatrician with whom he shares what his friends say is a strong, stable relationship. They have two sons, Patrick and Peter.

At a dinner after the opening of a recent show of oversized paintings (containing plenty of smoke rings), there was a round of toasts honoring the artist. In an uncharacteristic gesture, the usually reserved Stella spoke, paying tribute to his friend, Henry Geldzahler, who died in 1994. Stella noted that the smoke ring imagery in his present work would never have been conceived had Henry not introduced him to cigars.

In the 1960s, Geldzahler, then the curator of contemporary art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (he would later become New York City's Commissioner of Cultural Affairs), began sharing his Schwarz Weisheits with Stella. "They were Brazilian cigars made in Switzerland. The name means 'black wisdom' in German. They were only decent cigars, but they came in a truly beautiful can," Stella recalls. But it was art critic Clement Greenberg who converted him to Cuban cigars. In 1965, when the sculptor David Smith died, Greenberg gave Stella a box of Smith's leftover Don Candidos (a Cuban brand no longer produced). Stella remembers opening the box on a train ride en route to his parents' house in Massachusetts and smoking his first Cuban cigar. "The aroma and the flavor was completely different from anything I had ever tasted," he says. "It was strong and I really liked it."

On another May morning, Stella is energetically into his work. "Today is a real work day. I mean we're really working you'll get a good idea of what's happening here," he announces, not mentioning that it is his 59th birthday. "They found me out!" he exclaims when his assistants place a pop-up birthday card and three neatly wrapped green packages on top of a long collage that he is fastening shapes onto with a loud staple gun. He unwraps the gifts to find 20 Nat Sherman green-and-white boxes of what Stella designates "Nat's matches," a silver cigar cutter, and a wooden box of Partagas. He appreciates the streamlined simplicity of the cigar cutter. Holding it up, he studies its form and jokes, "I'll just spray paint around it and put it into a painting."

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