Frank Stella was the most significant painter in the 1960s. His work defined the critical stance and look of much of the advanced painting of that decade. Of course there were other kinds of painting going on – Greenbergers (thanks Don Judd) and Popists – one and all. But Stella was involved in painting on a different level of intellectual engagement, more experimental and tough minded. His work of the sixties was historical, hard edged, and unquestionable in its way. His success in the New York art world was immediate. And like many super successful artists Stella could have ridden that success all the way to the last stop of a lucrative career, but by 1970 the always questioning artist found himself in a quandary. New kinds of imagery was beginning to evolve in the work along with surprising connections to the old masters and to the history of art in a way that he hadn’t expected. So what’s next? What to do now?
Stella began again. This new direction began slowly – working himself out of the irregular polygons and protractors building out the support, finding new “old ways” to activated the surfaces of these constructions. By the end of the seventies he had fully involved himself in producing paintings that were wilder, more florid and more baroque than the reductionist work of the previous decade. Stella had found a new way of looking at and confronting the Modern century. No one was more surprised than Frank himself.
By the early sixties, the younger artists in particular were drawing heavily on critical analysis in their studio talk, and had an eye cocked on art history as they worked. Some of them appeared to be trying to decipher the direction in which art history was moving and to identify their work with what they conceived to be that history’s leading edge. With the advent of Conceptual art, the process of artistic decision – making became almost a parody of art-historically oriented criticism….
The sixties were a decade more strongly marked than any before by the notion of a signature style. For every Robert Morris that roamed the map of possibilities, there were many more artists who kept within narrow and consistent limits. In this context, the painting of Stella distinguished itself by its range. The twelve years of his work shown in The Museum of Modern Art retrospective of 1970 demonstrated a richness of ideas and a willingness to take risks unmatched by any other painter during the preceding decade. To be sure, among Stella’s pre-1970 works, the various series of stripe paintings could be considered as extensions of a single pictorial concept, despite all their differences. But both the Irregular Polygons and the Protractor paintings constituted major breaks within that development. [WIlliam Rubin on Frank Stella 1970-1987]
“Nothing much had changed in the externals of my life. But while I was painting the Protractor pictures, I felt I was coming to the end of something in my work. I really did want a change, and wanted to do things that went beyond the methods and system that underlay my painting until then. I just had to start all over again. That the new work could be contradictory and good is what makes the life of an artist exciting.
…Anyway, by the early seventies I had more or less had it with the art world, and with my relation to other artists. I had paid my dues and earned the right to do whatever I wanted, to just let it happen. I felt loose — sort of beyond the point of criticism. As long as I myself felt confident about the new work, why not just do as I pleased? And the new things really were different. There’s a power in the stripe paintings that the newer ones will never have; on the other hand there is an energy – and a kind of florid excitement — in the newer work that the stripe paintings didn’t have. I don’t think you can do it all at once. That’s why you’re lucky to have a lifetime.” [Frank Stella]
“… the problem with the recent return to painting, is that it returned at such a low level. It has certainly loosened things up, but It’s hard to get excited about this work. It represents a return of the mentality of the art school… the exaltation of student mannerisms. In the sixties and seventies, It was considered undignified to be an institutional art student. You were supposed to work at being an artist, and that Implied that you had the intellectual agility, the integrity and coherence of character, to put yourself together without going to art school in order to learn a trade and acquire credentials…. I feel very close still — and I obviously felt very close then —to artists of my own age, the generation of the sixties. It was a varied and talented generation. I sympathize with its tendency to want to make art that not painting—or even sculpture—in any received sense, and I admire the attitude that led a Helzer or a Turrell elsewhere. I don’t find the so-called return of painting in the late seventies and eighties an important alternative. At least not yet.” [Frank Stella]
08:18 Frank Stella: Well I didn’t know what the direction was, but the direction turned out to be instead of painting a painting I ended up building a painting, building something that you painted on. But it was basically a different way of constructing painting and thinking about it.
08:30 Charlie Rose: And what made you come to that? What caused you to come to that?
08:35 Frank Stella: Well, some of the ways I had been thinking about painting, but, I mean, I guess it was what happened — the way I started to look at the imagery that I was interested in. Very simply, I was making drawings. I got very nervous the night before a meniscus operation in my left leg. And, you know, I pretended I wasn’t worried about it, but I guess I was because they bring you into the hospital sort of early, and from about 6:00 at night until about 3:00 in the morning I made nothing but drawings. I made 44 drawings, you know, in six hours or something like that. And they were a surprise to me actually. I mean, they were about all of the kinds of things that I had done, but they were very different. They went in a different direction.
09:15 Charlie Rose: All these drawings.
09:17 Frank Stella: Yeah, the drawings added detail in a way to my own sense of structure. And then when I finally got out of the hospital I had nothing but the drawings and I started to look at them and I realized I couldn’t paint them. They were really plans for something to be built and then to be built up and then I began to work, treat them dimensionally and work and really evolve from 2D to three-dimensional structure that I then painted on. [Frank Stella in conversation with Charlie Rose]