In 1959, Frank Stella gained early, immediate recognition with his series of coolly impersonal black striped paintings that turned the gestural brushwork and existential angst of Abstract Expressionism on its head. Focusing on the formal elements of art-making, Stella went on to create increasingly complicated work that seemed to follow a natural progression of dynamism, tactility, and scale: first, by expanding his initial monochrome palette to bright colors, and, later, moving painting into the third dimension through the incorporation of other, non-painterly elements onto the canvas. He ultimately went on to create large-scale freestanding sculptures, architectural structures, and the most complex work ever realized in the medium of printmaking. Stella’s virtually relentless experimentation has made him a key figure in American modernism, helping give rise to such developments as Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, and Color Field painting.
- A decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism, Stella’s Black Paintings series consists of precisely delineated parallel black stripes produced by smoothly applied house paint. The striped pattern serves as a regulating system that, in Stella’s words, forced “illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate.” This device was intended to emphasize the flatness of the canvas and prompt the viewer’s awareness of painting as a two-dimensional surface covered with paint – thereby overturning the notion of painting as window onto three-dimensional space that emerged in the Renaissance and dominated the medium for many centuries thereafter.
- Created according to a predetermined, circumscribed system imposed by the artist, the Black Paintings served as an important catalyst for Minimalist art of the 1960s. Similar to Stella’s parallel stripes and smooth handling of paint, Minimalist artists created abstract works characterized by the use of repeated geometric, industrial-appearing shapes stripped of all thematic or emotional content.
- Stella was an early practitioner of nonrepresentational painting, rather than artwork alluding to underlying meanings, emotions, or narratives, and has remained one to this day. Working according to the principle of “line, plane, volume, and point, within space,” Stella focuses on the basic elements of an artwork – color, shape, and composition. Over time, Stella succeeded in dismantling the devices of three-dimensional illusionism; his shaped canvases underscored the “object-like” nature of a painting, while his asymmetrical Irregular Polygons explored the tension between the arrangement of colors on the flat surface of the canvas as well as the optical effect of the advancing and receding forms.
- Baroque artists such as the early-seventeenth-century Italian painter Caravaggio developed illusionistic “tricks” that convincingly suggested that their subjects emerged out of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. Several centuries later, Stella took such innovations one step further by literally extending painting into the third dimension in his painterly reliefs, which entered the viewer’s space with their incorporation of protruding materials.