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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 2)

This would come as no surprise. His use of copper paint in the Copper Series--giant striped copper pictures shaped like T's, L's and crosses--was an idea conceived one 1960 weekend while he helped his father paint the bottom of a boat with barnacle-resistant copper boat varnish. In 1976, he painted a BMW 3.0 CSL coupé for the Le Mans race, commissioned by BMW as the second in a series of 13 Art Cars, covering the auto with a black-and-white-square grid pattern. He painted a second BMW, an M-1, for race car driver Peter Gregg.

He found a red, foam rubber, cutout spiral soaker hat on a beach in Rio, gave it a twist, and used the shape to top a chapel he had designed as one of several buildings for a cultural mall in Dresden. (The mall was never built.) "I guess I'm influenced by art and life," he says. "I'm interested in what I see in terms of my past and present pictorial experience. And I'm interested in life--everyday things."

Minutes after opening his birthday gifts, Stella reaches for his everyday green plastic cutter to clip a cigar. "The new one's too nice," he demurs when asked why he's not using it. This is puzzling, coming from a car racing fan who owned three Ferraris over a period of time. (He now drives a Subaru Legacy.)

Stella's personal tastes run the gamut, from the ordinary to the grandiose. On his birthday, he wears aged, rolled-up blue jeans, a black fleece front-zippered vest embossed with a Stratton Mountain insignia, over a fading plaid flannel shirt, and gray New Balance running shoes. His large glasses with smoke-colored frames are attached to a sports leash decorated with splatters of Pollockesque paint driplets in Stellalike Day-Glo colors. Stella likes simple food, and the studio fridge is stocked with bottles of Pepsi. Once an avid squash player, Stella had his friend, architect Robert Kahn, design and build him a court at his upstate New York farm, where he breeds race horses. Nevertheless, his house on the property is homey and unpretentious.

The artist's appetite for both the common and sublime also applies to cigars: "I smoke whatever I can, whenever I can get it. I like Punch and an ordinary corona, or half a corona. I love Cuban cigars, and I suppose the fact that it's contraband gives it that edge that makes it glamorous and sort of wonderful. And it gives you something to do in foreign countries," he quips. A patron of great cigar stores, on each trip to London he visits tobacconist J.J. Fox and Robert Lewis. His assistants from Toronto come to New York bearing Montecristos. Stella likens his cigar habit to a security blanket. Handling them is as pleasurable as smoking, and he always has one around, not necessarily lit.

Just as smoking has informed his recent work, so has past art. He loves sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian painting, particularly that of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. "There's no question that the human figure is a powerful, powerful tool in drawing the viewer into a painting. And it's not certain that abstract forms have an equivalent to the human body," he muses. "If you painted a painting with a woman and a red triangle on the canvas, people would be more moved by the woman than by the triangle. On the other hand, it's possible they'd read more into the triangle than the woman. So with the abstract form you have a chance at a more open-ended kind of expression."

Stella has always been an abstractionist. He says he never was good at producing realistic illustrations of what he saw. "The forms that you make, whether they be abstract or representational, perform in such a way in the pictorial arena as to give you an effect you couldn't get any other way. Your vision or your experience of life is different from the experience that you have in front of paintings," he continues. Stella was influenced by the paintings of post-war Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. "What you see in a painting is what you don't see anywhere else," he says. "It's an apprehension of the world put before your vision that can only happen in a painting."

Stella's otherwise precise and eloquent speech is punctuated with mundane expressions like "stuff," "sort of" and "pretty good" as well as some '60s terms like "far out." "Really" is used for emphasis. When discussing his projects, he almost always uses "we," implicitly acknowledging the input of his several assistants and collaborators. Described in the media as shy, aloof and antisocial, he's not big on small talk. But those close to Stella characterize him as generous and kind.

At five feet seven inches tall, Stella's small stature is apparent only in comparison to the huge pictures he is working on. Although he exudes an enormous amount of mental energy, his low-key outward manner contrasts with the jarring color, nonstop motion, cutting-edge materials and the general daring of his work. The speed in his art perhaps relates to his passion for racing. "I like the action of competitive events. Racing is a fairly primitive idea: to go faster and faster. The object is to start here and see who gets to the finish line first. That's not sophisticated, but it has a kind of beauty to it. When it's over it's simple. It's quantifiable--exactly the opposite of art."

"In the art world, people don't talk about winning; they talk about what's better," Stella says. Few artists have done better than Stella. His work continues to fetch record prices. Art dealers vie for the privilege of showing and selling it. New York's Museum of Modern Art has mounted two major Stella expositions, in 1970 and 1987. Most every contemporary art museum in the world boasts at least one Stella in its permanent collection. This month, a complete retrospective of the artist's work opens at Madrid's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia; it then travels to Munich's Haus Der Kunst in January.

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