Interview with Frank Stella: “I started, and I think I am going to finish, as a committed abstractionist”

The American artist talks to Professor Norbert Lynton about working to commission, exploring the creative tension between figurative and abstract art, his debt to artists of the past and his views on artists of today


Frank Stella was in London for the installation and opening of his exhibition (until 15 August) at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery. The exhibition consists of large metal sculptures, much larger than some he has made in recent years, but smaller than those commissioned for sites around the world, notably in France and Germany. Frank Stella made his reputation from 1959 with striped monochrome paintings, on shaped canvases, then in metallic hues and, later, in bright colours, exploring a wide range of geometrical configurations. In the 1970s he turned to making reliefs and these have recently become more spirited and complicated. In 1983-84 he gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University, called “Working space” (published under the same title by Harvard in 1985) in which he commended baroque and other painting for its poetic, as well as constructive, use of space and volume. The Art Newspaper spoke to him about his career and his artistic concerns.

Can we start by talking about new and current jobs? You seem to be fantastically busy.

Frank Stella Well, yes and no, I am busy because I have a relationship now with Bernard [Jacobson] and because I am on my own, in a way. The dealers have disappeared: I have outgrown or outlived the dealers. Larry Rubin is retired; Leo Castelli is gone. I actually grew up in a different generation and they are all gone now. My world is past and gone. I’m out there hassling to keep going, but I do not really fit into the hard world.

What do you mean when you say that the galleries have gone?

I’m saying that I’m not able to function as a normal gallery artist much any more. I cannot make work for collectors because it seems, although price might be part of the reason, it is really a matter of the scale. This is a typical show, but I leave it to you to predict how many of my pieces will be sold.

A lot of people are going to buy something.

But we are not talking about what used to be the case for me and a lot of artists: the sellout category. Those days are over.

The dealers have gone, but the commissions have not disappeared.

Yes, but they are pretty hard to come by; they waste an awful lot of time. I have commissions, but they represent such a small part of the number that I propose in order to get one.

You have to do a lot of work in order to land one?

I would say that to get one out of ten is a fantastic accomplishment. We make so many proposals and so few come to fruition. Instead of working on big projects, I have to make so many proposals. Yet I must say that, terrible as it is to make the proposals, I get to make marvels and the ideas come.

So the proposals generate art?

They do. I feel I have a lot of things I can do, if I get around to it.

Technically and physically, you seem in a mood to do almost anything.

Well, I am getting older, but I am staying relatively healthy and I have the energy to work. I also feel I am wasting too much energy getting the work.

Each commission involves a lot of things that don’t come off and noncommissioned work?

The big commission, particularly if it involves sculpture, generates a tremendous amount of work. So I do the big commission and it is what it is: sometimes good and sometimes not so good. The work it requires is not just in reproducing the model. The model is merely an idea and I overproduce models. The result of making so many models is that I make a lot of things after the commission has been completed. For example, in this exhibition, some of the sculptures come from material left over from five or six years ago, from models that have come into play now.

You’ve been a well-known artist since about 1960. In the light of how quickly fashions change in contemporary art, it is quite remarkable how enduring your work is, how people respond to it with excitement. What do you make of this?

That is positive. It is also about the way I respond to it. I get excited about almost everything that I do. Then again, I also get unhappy with it. People say, “Why do you change?” I do not change all that much. The changes are really come from two things: one, being a little bit dissatisfied; the other being a little bit hopeful, looking for something else. Everyone wants you “to find yourself”, to have a style. That is great when it happens, but, by and large, artists want to keep looking. You are always looking for opportunities, for things to happen. It is a sense of exploration and discovery that gets overlooked. Artists try, but I think there is a tendency to stop at the first level of exploration.

The better artists keep trying, but they very often work within a very limited field. They seem to be saying, “This is my area and I’m going to stick to it and explore only it.”

That would have happened to me too, but the relief paintings forced me to go out and get involved in the real world. I had to go out to buy felt and plywood and honeycomb aluminium and things like that. I started to bring things into my work, rather than work with things in the controlled conditions of the studio. Picasso went out quite a bit, but, by our standards, one would say that he did not so much go out as he went far with his materials.

You went much further technically.

I agree with you. When we look back, some things were not so popular. People are always using the Russian Constructivists to beat me over the head. They were not well known, certainly not in the 50s when I was growing up. They were invisible. I did not have a clue as to who they were. And then in the 60s, I got into the Russian Constructivists along with everybody else, but by then my ideas were already formed. I liked their work it and it was fun and I continued to learn from it, but, as I say, my ideas were set.

Do you feel distant from your early stripe paintings?

No, I do not feel distant from my own work at all. I would not do that sort of work now. It was a good idea and I did it in a straightforward way, but I don’t really want to mess with it again. Another reason is that, were I to do it again, or do a version of it, it would not be as good as the first time. You cannot recreate the freshness and the directness and the simplicity. It is more complicated now. The castings in this exhibition are very straightforward: direct impressions in wax and castings in stainless steel. That is pretty direct, but still different.

It seems to me that, in your early work, whatever you thought about them at the time, there was control and coherence.

I agree with you one hundred percent. Although these early paintings were very abstract, people said how literal they were. The early paintings basically depended on illusionism for their effect. Restricted and defined as to the surface, there is still an illusionistic effect and impact.

Would you have said so at the time?

No, I would not. In fact, I was hysterically trying to avoid the illusionistic implications. There were illusionistic implications—the illusionism of the folded geometric pattern—but the illusionism that I am talking about is the surface illusionism: it absorbs a little bit and it projects a little bit, which is normal to abstraction. It abandons the direct linear box behind it.

But I would argue that this is the case with your more recent work too: what you give us is what we see, only it is more complicated.

I am not trying for one or the other, the literal or the illusionistic. To my mind, it has to have a little bit of both. A painting is definitely defined by illusionism. There is really no non-illusionistic painting, that is the way the eye perceives it. When a work has no illusionistic or tactile connotations, when it is just literal, it is a way of saying it is no good. It has to carry something more.

In my view you have never been solemn.

I think I’m pretty optimistic. The other thing that I would say is that, for me, the spiritual resides in Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky, they are my spiritual basis. I mean my complete belief and commitment and appreciation of their work allows me to go forward. I can take that as given and I believe in it.

You pick on them especially? Would you include Matisse?

I would, but I would say that Matisse for me goes in the other direction. I started and I think I am going to finish as a committed abstractionist, so I look to the artists who went the slightly harder way. Matisse is complicated and so is Picasso because they functioned on such a high level that it creates another kind of problem. I would say that I absorb Matisse and Picasso, but I like and depend on and am committed to Kandinsky and Mondrian and Malevich. I lean on Picasso and Matisse and certainly take everything I can learn from them. Happily.

When you look around the international contemporary scene, do you feel you have fellow spirits out there?

I especially like the rough-hewn stuff of artists, such as Nunoz Ramos, a South American artist, who does some very messy, strong things, and Nancy Rubens, who makes these big constructions. What I do not like are the sort of more performance-oriented works. I have a very difficult time with with those whose main mode of expression uses reproductive methods, film and photography, although I don’t dislike them totally. I do not find them satisfying because in the end they are not physical. The image is all that they have.

Your are interested in baroque art, the subject of your Harvard lectures a few years ago. How has this come about?

My interest in, and the knowledge I have of, baroque art come from looking, and a lot of what I said really comes from the great art historians, the Friedländers and the Wittkowers and so on.

We started this conversation talking about working on the commissions and the similarity between my experience and the artists of the baroque and earlier periods lies in the practice of commissions. A great deal of the art of the West has been made for commissions, for the Church or the State. Modernism is defined by the tableau, the easel painting, and that is a relative anomaly in the history of great art. I can think of a lot of great art, but not so many great easel paintings. Of course, there are—let’s say Correggio: there are great easel paintings by Correggio, but there are the great domes too. He was able to work both ways.

Part of the enterprise of easel painting was partly an attempt to get free of the architecture and free of the commissions. So one had a private patron instead of the Church and the State. It was a kind of striving for independence and a striving to control your own fate. On the other hand, we assumed that the individual expression of the artist was geared to his individual creation. Mural painting has a deep tradition. We think of it as an anomaly, but it is really the core of our expression.

You emphasise the abstract and yet there is figuration.

I think that all the pieces in my show here, the smoke rings, if they do not stand for the human figure, I do not know what does.

So again you are not making a barrier, you’re not saying, “This is not allowed”?

At the beginning, I certainly was against figuration per se, but I gave up on that. What I’m really against is the figuration that is added in: you know, indicating figuration by putting the eyes and the nose on the piece after you have finished so people can read it or have something to respond to. I find that sort of annoying.