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Living color Stella exhibit at the Modern

🕐 4 min read

Frank Stella: A Retrospective

Through Sept. 18 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St.

Admission is $10, $4 for students with ID and seniors, free for ages 12 and younger

817-738-9215; www.themodern.org

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is bursting with a colorful, riotous exhibition for one of America’s greatest living painters.

“Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” which opened in April, is the first career retrospective in decades for the prolific painter.

Michael Auping, the Modern’s chief curator, had the idea for the exhibit, got Stella to participate, then spent six years putting it together with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it debuted to lots of attention last fall. After Fort Worth, it will travel to San Francisco’s de Young Museum.

Frank Stella, now 80, has been unusually prolific over an unusually long career. He was recognized as a major artist in his early 20s, soon after graduating from Princeton University, with his minimalist masterpieces known as the “black paintings” in the 1950s.

Almost 60 years later, he is still making art (the most recent piece in this show is from 2012), and he’s still innovating. For that 2012 work, K. 459, he used CAD, or computer-aided design, and 3-D printing.

And the volume of work is overwhelming. Auping writes in the exhibit catalog that he counts 57 different series and subseries of works over six decades, each comprising 50 or more works. The works tend to be huge, too. One painting in the exhibit, Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III), from 1970, is 50 feet long.

Auping says that in creating the exhibition, he learned why perhaps no museum had attempted a Stella retrospective for some 30 years. “People just thought, how could you possibly sum up a career like that? But I think we’ve done it.”

The show’s approximately 100 works take up the museum’s first-floor galleries. The works are not presented in strict chronology, but examples of black paintings made with enamel house paint (99 cents a gallon, Stella recalls, a big plus for him at the time) are among the first things you encounter – his earliest works in a vein that eventually earned him the nickname “the father of minimalism.”

The exhibit quickly moves on to the also-famous aluminum and copper paintings, created with metallic paint on canvases that were starting to lose that straightforward rectangular shape. Stella began cutting out notches on the corners or holes in the center of his huge canvases, then made giant L- or zigzag-shaped ones.

Soon come more colorful, irregular polygons and the curvilinear “protractor” paintings (possibly his best-known works); their more complex examples use combinations of that familiar shape from our middle-school days in an almost calligraphic fashion.

Pushing even more against the idea of a painting as an ordinary rectangle hanging flat on a wall, Stella’s works began bursting out from the two-dimensional plane.

In one stunning example, he decided to do a series based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, then ended up creating an enormous three-dimensional painting for every one of that epic novel’s 135 chapters. Five of the paintings take up three walls in the museum’s big two–story gallery. (Stella insists that these and the numerous other enormous pieces that jut out from the walls are paintings, but they are as dimensional as sculpture — you step all around them, trying not to bump your head or get scolded by a guard as you peer in and try to see how all the parts are connected.)

When the show was in New York, critics mentioned how riotous the show looked and how stuffed the galleries were at the Whitney’s new downtown space designed by Renzo Piano.

The Modern’s serene Tadao Ando building has a different feel. “In this building, I think things are framed a little more,” Auping said. “I think it’s a slower view through Frank’s work.” The art critic at the Dallas Morning News named it the finest museum exhibit in North Texas in 25 years.

In his Fort Worth appearance in April, Stella indicated that he approves, too. With someone like van Gogh, “we worry about the intensity of the individual work, but for van Gogh what was important was the ensemble, the vision he had not for individual works but how they all fit together as whole. And that’s what exhibitions like this do. That’s the question they raise, anyway.”

Auping thinks people will have a different view of Stella’s career after seeing this exhibition, hard as it was to sum it all up.

“When you see the show, you will see the highlights of this very long career. A lot of people remember the beginning, and a lot of people are aware of where he is now. But the middle of the show is amazing, with the irregular polygons, the exotic bird series, all these series that were on the cover of Artforum or Art in America. People have forgotten how important they were. And how they changed the direction of painting.”

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