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Frank Stella - Five-Decade Legacy


Untitled Abstraction, 1956-57 - Oil on masonite, 24" x 19 3/4"

Untitled Abstraction, 1956-57 - Oil on masonite, 24" x 19 3/4"

By: Irina Leyva-Pérez

Frank Stella is one of those artists who needs no introduction. From his ground-breaking abstractions in the 1960’s, until today with his new works, he has managed to keep up the pace and the interest, despite the incredible amount of artists and works being produced in the contemporary art arena.

Gary Nader Fine Arts Gallery, in the Wynwood Arts District, is currently presenting a retrospective exhibition of this internationally-renowned artist under the title, Frank Stella-Five Decades of Paintings and Sculpture. As the title promises, the exhibition is a first-rate show of the work of this influential American artist. Covering a period of over five decades, the exhibition places an emphasis on sculptural work, which has been Stella’s main focus in the last couple of years. Stella’s work has been exhibited previously in Miami, at MOCA in 2000, and is part of the collections of major museums in the region, among them, the Miami Art Museum and the Lowe Art Museum. However, this is the first time a South Florida gallery has presented a retrospective of the artist’s oeuvre, showing works from such an extended period.

Comprised mainly of sculptures, this is not the usual type of exhibition that we see in galleries, which would mostly favor paintings instead. This is a great opportunity for those who do not know Stella’s work to get acquainted with it, and the best time for those who follow his career to enjoy this exclusive and carefully-selected group of works.

This remarkable group of twenty-four works, generally speaking, covers his whole career, starting with an early abstract piece from 1956-57 up to sculptures from 2007. Observing and analyzing this show we can safely say that Stella’s interest in three-dimensional work grew from his early abstract flat paintings, to reliefs and then to sculptures. This is, of course, a natural progression. We can also say that creating sculptures is what seems to motivate him more now, if we take into consideration the volume of this type of work he has produced recently. This retrospective exhibition reinforces and proves that statement by showing his evolution over the years.

Included in the exhibition are a couple of paintings. Once we hear about paintings by Stella, images of his famous abstract pieces immediately come to mind. In this instance there are two, one from 1956-57, corresponding to his early abstract period, and the second one belonging to the acclaimed series of geometric paintings with odd shapes. There are also some collages on paper, fine examples of the above-mentioned transition from the flat surface to three-dimensional work. So, in this sense, the exhibition documents his leap from flat surfaces to rich reliefs and then to sculptures.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding characteristics of Stella’s work is his zest for experimentation, and this is precisely one the unifying elements in the exhibition. Throughout his long career, he has been extremely productive without losing his sense of ingenuity. In these pieces we can see how he has been incessantly working in that direction. Admirably, the recognition of his work by the public in general, and especially by critics and collectors, did not cause him to stay in the comfort zone of ‘the already proven work,’ something that happens to artists very often. He has gone, and keeps going, beyond that line, risking acceptance every time he presents a new type of work.

A survey of the materials used by Stella reveals his appreciation for and innovative use of industrial materials. Aluminum, fiberglass, carbon fiber, foam, taking to extremes the malleability of the material and the endless possibilities that each of them offers. In an interview he confessed that he does not think of the materials as such, but rather in terms of the forms he wants to create; that is what dictates the material to be used.

Frank Stella’s résumé contains an impressive list of prestigious museums and galleries around the globe, and he is one of the few living artists whose work has been exhibited in solo shows not once but twice at the Metropolitan Art Museum. Two of the sculptures exhibited at his last exhibition there found their way to this one in Wynwood: Adjoeman and Memantra, both from 2004. Of monumental appearance, these are two of the most imposing sculptures in this show.

It is easy to see how sculptural work influenced his interest in architecture, and how many of these sculptures can be easily placed in urban public places. Some of his sculptures have been, but unfortunately many projects originally designed to be enjoyed by the public in an open space have not come to fruition. A sad example is the project Broken Jug, conceived to be placed in the Biscayne Bay area, behind the American Airlines Arena, here in Miami. The piece was conceived as a thirty-four foot high metal bandshell, which would have served also as a performance space. A version of this sculpture was included in his retrospective at the Metropolitan Art Museum in 2007.

Stella is known to work in series, a common practice among artists who devote more than one work to a particular theme, working until they decide that it has been exhausted. Perhaps one of the most famous of Stella’s series is the one inspired by Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Another memorable one is the K series, under which umbrella Stella has created some of his more innovative pieces. This series is based on Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, which were studied and published mostly after his death by Ralph Patrick, who edited them with the letter K included in the title. Hence the K and number given by Stella to the works produced as part of this series. Examples of the K series are the seven pieces in this exhibition: K.25, 2006; K.25 (large version), 2007; K.43, 2006; K.34 (large version), 2007; K.132, 2007; K.137, 2007 and K.144, 2007. These capricious forms seem to follow musical patterns, looking like loops defying gravity.

An exhibition of this kind creates many expectations, which have been fulfilled. Stella has, once more, demonstrated that he can keep up with the latest trends in contemporary art, thereby showing why he is one of the most important and influential artists of his generation.

Irina Leyva-Perez: BA in Art History (University of Havana, Cuba). Former Assistant Curator at the National Gallery of Jamaica. Currently Curator of Panamerican Art Projects. Resides in Miami, FL .

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