Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking on view beginning May 19

Distributed April 30, 2018


Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking on view May 19-Sept. 23, 2018 at the Princeton University Art Museum


PRINCETON, N.J. – The acclaimed American artist Frank Stella (born 1936) is renowned for his career-long innovations in abstraction in a variety of media. In addition to his early minimalist work from the late 1950s and 1960s and his later efforts to disrupt the accepted norms of painting, Stella made groundbreaking achievements in the print medium, combining printmaking processes, mining new sources for imagery and expanding the technical capacity of the press.

    Frank Stella, American, born 1936. Had Gadya: Front Cover, 1984. Handcoloring and collage with lithograph, linocut, and screenprint on T.H. Saunders paper (background) and shaped, hand-cut Somerset paper (collage), 108 × 86 cm. Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960 / © 2017 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York   Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking focuses on a revolutionary period in the artist’s printmaking career, between 1984 and 1999, when Stella executed four ambitious print series – each of which was named after a distinct literary work: the Passover song Had Gadya, a compilation of Italian folktalesthe epic American novel Moby-Dick and The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. In the four series titled after these sources, Stella created prints of unprecedented scale and complexity, transforming his own visual language – as well as his working process in all media – and reaching a technical and expressive milestone in printmaking.            

       “As an artist long devoted to radical experimentation and creative inquiry, Frank Stella is one of the most original practitioners of our time,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “The exhibition devoted to these four pioneering print series, and its companion catalogue, allow us at his alma mater to more deeply examine Frank’s visionary commitment to printmaking and the ways in which he shapes narrative through abstract means.”

      Frank Stella, American, born 1936. Then Came an Ox and Drank the Water, 1984. Hand-coloring and collage with lithograph, linocut, and screenprint on T.H. Saunders paper (background) and shaped, hand-cut Somerset paper (collage), 137.2 × 133 cm. Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960 / © 2017 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Frank Stella Unbound is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on the vital role that literature played in the artist’s powerful exploration of the print medium. The exhibition features 41 prints from four of Stella’s major print series, alongside historical editions of their literary sources on loan from the Princeton University Library. Organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Frank Stella’s graduation as a member of the Class of 1958, the exhibition will be on view at Princeton from May 19 through Sept. 23, 2018, after which it will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.

       In 1982 Stella began working on a print series entitled Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya. The Russian Constructivist artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) had created a suite of 11 gouache illustrations, one for each of the verses of the traditional Passover song, plus a frontispiece and dust jacket, and published these as color lithographs in a bound volume in 1919. Stella, in response and tribute, produced one print for each of Lissitzky’s illustrations plus additional prints as front and back covers, to explore the ways in which the structure of a literary text – specifically a verse-based narrative – could inform and be communicated as signs and shapes in a language of abstraction. It was a watershed moment in Stella’s printmaking career. Working in his home studio and incorporating collaged elements, illusionistic graphics and multiple techniques, Stella broke both the rectangular frame and the flat unified surface of traditional prints in the dynamic compositions of this series.

     Frank Stella, American, born 1936. The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck, 1991. Etching, aquatint, relief, and Carborundum on white, shaped TGL handmade paper, 185.4 × 134.6 × 15.2 cm. Collection of Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960 / © 2017 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York  Stella’s Italian Folktales – eight intaglio prints that incorporated elements derived from previous paintings – followed in 1988-89 and was based on the colorful anthology of folklore compiled and retold by Italo Calvino and published in Italy in 1956, translated into English in 1980. As in the oral tradition of folktales, these prints develop as variations, with intricate overlapping shapes and marks that subtly change from one state (or telling of the story) to the next. The Italian Folktales series reflects Stella’s sustained interest in using his own work as a springboard for the development of ideas.

       Monumental in scope and scale, the Moby Dick prints depict scenes from Herman Melville’s classic novel, published in 1851 but recognized as a canonical work of American literature only after the turn of the 20th century. In 1930, the American artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was commissioned to create a series of graphic, black-and-white woodcut prints to illustrate a deluxe edition of the novel, as well as a condensed trade edition. Stella was inspired by visits to the Coney Island aquarium in Brooklyn and by his subsequent re-reading of the novel. In total, between 1989 and 1993 Stella created more than 266 individual works – paintings, sculptures and prints, all titled after the 135 chapters, plus appendices, of this epic novel. The 37 large-scale prints that Stella developed for his Moby Dick project combine a spectacular range of graphic media, and amount to one of the most ambitious and technically challenging printmaking series of the 20th century.

       Frank Stella, American, born 1936. Juam, State I, 1997. Hand colored relief, woodcut, etching and aquatint on paper, 198.76 cm x 152.4 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, U.S.A. Tyler Graphics Ltd. 1974-2001 Collection, given in honor of Frank Stella, 2003.44.273. © 2017 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkFirst published in 1980, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi is a witty encyclopedia of fictional lands and places from literature, with fanciful maps and illustrationsStella evolved the compositions for the richly complex prints he made in response by creating collages that he cut, tore and layered together from myriad sources, including excerpts drawn from his extensive archive of printed proofs, computer renderings, industrial printing plates and found images reproduced from old pattern books. Translated by Stella’s studio collaborators at Tyler Graphics into dazzling combinations of mixed techniques, the Imaginary Places prints utilize nearly every reproductive process known to the history of Western art, printed on single sheets of handmade paper.

       In each of these bodies of work, Stella advanced his visual thinking and the technical processes that allowed him to break the boundaries between the literal surface of the picture plane and the representation of spatial depth. At the same time, he developed a language of assembled materials and layered processes with which he explored the narrative potential of abstract forms.

       The exhibition catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, illustrates each of the works on view and affords a revelatory examination of the role of literature in the development of Frank Stella’s artistic practice. An introductory essay by exhibition curators Mitra Abbaspour and Calvin Brown contextualizes Stella’s literary printmaking projects within the artist’s oeuvre and his milieu; a second essay by scholar Erica Cooke explores the artist’s dynamic engagement with literature and printmaking at this transformative moment in his career.

       Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking is made possible with generous support from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; the Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund; the National Endowment for the Arts; Preston H. Haskell, Class of 1960; the Douglas A. Hirsch and Holly S. Andersen Family Foundation; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; the Julis Rabinowitz Family; Theodora D. Walton, Class of 1978, and William H. Walton III, Class of 1974; Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert B. Goergen; Nancy A. Nasher, Class of 1976, and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976; and William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher, through the Sakana Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Lynn and Robert F. Johnston, Class of 1958; Ivy Lewis; Blair Moll, Class of 2010, through the Bagley and Virginia Wright Foundation; and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.


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