Points of Entry

In the recently published book Frank Stella, fellow artists and curators focus on the American artist’s daring innovations and landmark pieces—many of which are on display at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale exhibition “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change.” In this excerpt, art historian Kate Nesin examines a few of his memorable works.

K.304, 2013.

Frank Stella has produced thousands of individual works across six decades, divided among more than 60 series and categorized variously (sometimes conflictingly) as paintings, prints, reliefs and sculptures; using commercial and industrial paints, canvas, paper, print media, wood, felt, cardboard, aluminum, magnesium, steel, bronze, ceramic, fiberglass, carbon fibre, foam, bamboo, numerous plastics and Corian; brushing, spraying, collaging, machine-cutting, casting, assembling, machine-carving, as well as 3-D printing and laser sintering, among other forms of rapid prototyping. These lists are not comprehensive, nor precisely chronological, but the list format is useful insofar as it presents with concision a constitutive incommensurability.

Organdie, 1997.

To be sure, cogent narrative accounts of Stella’s practice abound, either structured around a succession of evermore surprising breaks with convention and expectation, or around the differently surprising advance of a kind of formal logic from extreme to extreme. Either way, the language of boundaries and borders pertains—a language on which my storytelling will rely as well. Indeed, this survey begins as if both in the middle and off to the side, with small sculptures made in the early 1990s, a point of possible beginning I have cultivated in part because these were the works, according to one glowing review, that show Stella as the renowned and avowed painter crossing “the sculpture threshold.”

So, let’s begin. In 1992 Stella displayed nearly three dozen free-standing works in steel and bronze, assembled from found as well as intentionally cast parts. They were grouped as the “Alsace-Lorraine” series, each titled after a different town in that industrial region where France borders Germany. All were sized for pedestal or table, and so, in theory, for human-scaled encounter—an invitation to bend closer, examining intricacies and irregularities as if they might be possible to parse. Theirs was an appealing intimacy, yet not one that seemed intrinsic to them. Some registered as possible models for larger works; others registered as fragments broken from a mysterious mass.

Creutzwald, for instance, appears simultaneously whole and partial. Its own parts—all steel scraps, though divergent in surface, sheen, tone and thickness—coalesce as a wing-like form, via the mottled triangular shard that angles upward from a loop of crumpled metal sheeting. The clear directionality of this “wing,” which leads the eye out from a compact material bundle into the air that circulates around it, is thus forceful in itself. At the same time, it suggests its own incompletion: a body needs two wings to fly.

Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3], 1999

More than two decades later, in 2014, Stella showed Creutzwald for the second time, but differently. The work sat on a squat, slatted steel platform, which underscored the pull of gravity that the “wing,” in turn, resists. Nor was it alone—there still may not be two wings, but Stella’s platform did now proffer two sculptures, the works newly considered a pair. What seems from one angle like an additional, low-lying appendage to Creutzwald is in fact Toul, a nugget of similar steel components, likewise darkling, scumbled and cut by flashes of brighter strands. The bulk of this smaller sculpture, however, is comprised of a single element cast from assembled parts, such that clear distinctions in texture and form nevertheless present as materially unified.

See nearly 300 of the artist’s works in “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change,” on view at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale through June 8. Text and images courtesy of Frank Stella (Phaidon, 2018).

Benjamin Moore Paintings, 1961.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue.