Exhibition | Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking
Can an abstract painting tell a story with the same persuasive power and expressive drama as a narrative scene? What is the future for abstract painting—following the artistic brilliance of Pablo Picasso, El Lissitzky, and Jackson Pollock, can it continue to lead to breakthroughs and advances in artistic expression? In 1984, Frank Stella, Princeton Class of 1958, began an exploration of these questions. Over the next fifteen years, he created four print cycles titled after published narratives that rely on exaggeration, fantastical events, and imaginary space—the literary equivalents of expressionistic drama, pictorial illusion, and abstraction.
This exploration began with a series created in Stella’s state-of-the-art workshop, installed on the ground floor of the artist’s New York City home. Inspired by the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s illustrations of Had Gadya—the concatenated folk song traditionally sung at the end of the Passover Seder—Stella developed a series of twelve prints, one in response to each of Lissitzky’s ten compositions as well as front and back covers. The prints’ titles relay the full narrative of Had Gadya, which recounts the dominance of one being over another as the action of each verse builds on the previous one. This narrative sequence suited Stella’s process of layering multiple printmaking techniques as well as his approach to abstraction—working through permutations of a set of formal elements to explore their compositional possibilities.
Characteristic of Stella’s Had Gadya series are volumetric renderings of cones and pillars taken from a nineteenth-century manual used to teach architects and stonecutters how to measure and draft the building blocks of neoclassical architecture. Collaged onto the surface of the print, these graphic depictions extend beyond the edges of the paper to emphasize the material space occupied by each work. This technique also inspired a group of high-relief sculptural paintings composed of intersecting geometric shapes cut from aluminum, fiberglass, and etched magnesium and titled after Italo Calvino’s anthology Italian Folktales (1956), which had recently been translated into English. The dynamic exchange of ideas between Stella’s print series and the painted sculptures reversed again when he reprised titles and formal elements from three of these multimedia paintings to create a group of eight new prints. In the case of Bene come il sale, the composition changes subtly in each of the four states of the print, much as the details of an oral story may shift with each retelling.
Indeed, Stella set out not to illustrate these literary works but rather to use the structure and spirit of each as a catalyst. He thus turned to the novel Moby-Dick (1851) after watching beluga whales at the Coney Island aquarium. Over a period of twelve years, he created the largest series of his career—266 works titled after the 135 chapters of Melville’s masterpiece, a scope that rivaled its literary source in magnitude. The Moby Dick project encompassed Stella’s entire artistic practice, including painted reliefs, freestanding sculptures, and four series of mixed-media prints, each with its own distinct graphic style and representation of space. These discrete bodies of work—The Waves, Moby Dick Engravings, Moby Dick Domes, and Moby Dick Deckle Edges—provide touchstones for exploring the role of printmaking in Stella’s quest to advance a language of abstraction.
By the time Stella concluded his Moby Dick series, printmaking had become a way of thinking for him. No longer tethered to illustration or reproduction as he had once considered it, printmaking was a medium of experimentation and creative possibilities. At this juncture, he embarked on his most technically complex series of prints yet: Imaginary Places. The encyclopedic entries that compose Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi's The Dictionary of Imaginary Places are detailed and evocative accounts of the geography, culture, and ways of life of fictional places described in literature, and they provided the perfect source for abstract compositions. Both the locations included in the book and the titular subjects of these prints do not exist in the physical realm; their depictions—in words or in colorful compositions—are created to conjure a rich landscape in one’s imagination. In Imaginary Places, Stella combined all the lessons of the previous print series, creating intricate, multi-process prints by assembling many individual elements; thus, the final compositions serve as compendia of traditional Western printmaking processes, including lithography, screenprinting, etching, aquatint, woodcut, collage, and more.
These ambitious series represent a crowning achievement in Stella’s graphic oeuvre. With them, he developed printmaking techniques that yielded works of extraordinary visual dynamism, scale, and technical achievement, imbuing his compositions with a drama that parallels the power of the printed word. On the occasion of the artist’s sixtieth reunion, Frank Stella Unbound draws together works from each of these series with the books after which they are titled. Reflecting on his practice in 2014, Stella explained, “Abstraction didn’t have to be limited to a kind of rectilinear geometry or even a simple curve geometry. It could have a geometry that had a narrative impact. In other words, you could tell a story with the shapes. It wouldn’t be a literal story, but the shapes and the interaction of the shapes and colors would give you a narrative sense.” In marrying the creative spirit, imaginative possibilities, and narrative structures of literature with the processes of printmaking, Stella transformed his working methods and visual language in ways that continue to inform his artistic explorations.
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking will be on view at Princeton from May 19 through September, 23, 2018, after which it will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.