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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.
| By Nancy Wolfson | From 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.

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."

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.

Large-scale pieces of Stella's work grace corporate spaces around the globe, including Saatchi & Saatchi's New York lobby and the outside wall of Pacific Bell in Los Angeles. In 1983, Harvard named him Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry, an honor previously bestowed on Igor Stravinsky and T.S. Eliot. He has also been a visiting critic at Yale.

His father would be proud. Yet Stella continues to struggle. "It's as hard for me now as it ever was," he confides. When asked what he would like to accomplish, Stella responds without hesitation: "I'd like to build one building. We've had some pretty good concepts for architecture and I'd like to carry them through to see if they'd be buildable and habitable. You need to test your ideas."

Nancy Wolfson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.

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