Painting has been part of Frank Stella’s DNA since a young age.
While growing up, he’d paint alongside his mother, whose work is displayed at libraries and museums near the Massachusetts town where Stella was raised.
His father worked his way through college as a house painter so Stella did a lot of sanding, varnishing and painting with him.
“I was used to being around paint — both in the commercial and art-based way,” he said.
He excelled in art while a student at Phillips Academy, where classes emphasized both art history and studio time to create art.
“The paint is free at elite schools,” Stella recalled with a chuckle. “I kind of abused the privilege and they got on my case.”
Stella, 84, went on to become a leading abstract artist specializing in painting, sculpture, printmaking and public art. His work can be found at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Whitney Museum and Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
Theaters, hospitals, museums and other institutions around the United States and elsewhere display Stella’s large sculptures.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield will host a solo outdoor and indoor exhibition of his work, “Frank Stella’s Stars, a Survey,” through May 9. The show highlights Stella’s work with star figures, a form he’s often explored during a career of more than six decades. His artwork can be seen in the galleries, outdoor sculpture garden, courtyard and front lawn.
Amy Smith-Stewart, Aldrich senior curator, said displaying Stella’s work outside serves “as a beacon for what we do inside the museum and extends the visitor experience by encouraging the public to enjoy contemporary art under the open sky.”
Smith-Stewart called Stella “one of the most important living artists working today” and “a prolific innovator.”
“His omnivorous appetite for experimentation has influenced so many generations of artists,” she said, pointing out at age 23 his Black Paintings at MoMA “ushered in the beginnings of minimalism” and in the 1980s he was one of the first artists to use computer technology to make sculptures.
Stella’s work has been included in 15 group exhibits at the Aldrich but this is his first solo show there. It includes paintings, sculptures, wall reliefs and painted objects of varying sizes.
“Stars are complicated but interesting shapes,” Stella said. “They become even more interesting when exploring their relationship with other things.”
Museum founder Larry Aldrich showed an early interest in Stella’s work and the museum first exhibited a Stella piece in 1965, one year after its founding. The Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund supported MoMA in purchasing its first Stella work.
“In the beginning, in a certain way, you could say I owe everything to the Aldrich,” he said, noting the museum provided support when he was an emerging artist.
In 1970, at age 34, Stella became the youngest person ever to have a retrospective show at MoMA. “The museum was obviously good to me,” he said, describing legendary MoMA curator William Rubin as a mentor.
In the resale market in 2019, Christie’s sold one of Stella’s paintings — he no longer owned the piece — for $28 million.
“It’s a lot of money but it’s a lot of years,” he said of his many years producing art. “Plus that’s the way markets go. I don’t have much say in it.”
Stella has been a public proponent of stronger copyright protections for visual artists. Resale rights are a concern because the large art auction houses oppose changes in the current system.
“That’s the big issue,” he said, stressing added protections would help artists who aren’t as financially successful as those who become famous.
Stella attended Princeton, frequently visiting museums in nearby New York City. He began his professional career in the late 1950s and was originally known for paintings with stripes and unusual canvas shapes.
He started doing three-dimensional pieces in the 1970s, working with metal and other objects. His focus shifted to large public art sculptures in the 1990s.
He is based in New York and also has a studio in upstate New York, not far from Connecticut.
He’s lectured at Harvard, designed the Metropolitan Museum of Art centennial logo, done high-profile work for car maker BMW and had solo shows in Europe.
President Barack Obama presented Stella with the National Medal of Arts in 2009. In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter also invited him to the White House.
His advancing age means many of his contemporaries are no longer around. “I was so tied in with my generation, artists who’d worked alongside me, but many of them now have gone away,” Stella said. “That can be difficult and I miss them.”
But his positive attitude remains strong. “We can always find things to worry and complain about,” he said. “I must say I have nothing to complain about.”
The Aldrich will produce a 150-page hardcover catalogue with photos and essays on Stella for the exhibit. Advance reservations for timed-entry visits are required due to the pandemic. To learn more about the show and related programs. go to aldrichart.org.
Top image: Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, September 21, 2020 to May 9, 2021 (installation view, left, Star with Square Tubing, 2016; right, Stick Star, 2017, ), Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen © 2020 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Christopher E. Manning