“It is all about the beauty”: Interview with Frank Stella

The artist is showing a major collaboration with architect Santiago Calatrava in northern Spain


The American artist Frank Stella had a busy year in 2011, celebrating his 75th birthday with shows in Washington, DC, London and Berlin. This year is set for more of the same, with a major exhibition, Elective Affinities, mounted in collaboration with the Spanish architect and sculptor Santiago Calatrava at the IACC Pablo Serrano Museum in Zaragoza, Spain, planned for later this year.

The core of this show, which will include other individual works by both artists, is a joint project, seen at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2011. The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain, a 30m, double-sided collage painted by Stella in 2008, is placed within a sculptural form created by Calatrava, with a combined weight of around one tonne. This will go on display in Zaragoza on 15 February, for one year. He has recently shown new works at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany and is preparing for a major retrospective due to open at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in Germany opening on 1 September (until 20 January 2013).

Stella emerged on the art scene with his strong, abstract 1960 series, The Black Paintings, and has become one of the most influential American artists of the past 50 years. Casually dressed in sports shoes and blue jeans, always smiling, he talked about his lifelong love of literature, Italian Renaissance painting, fast cars, race horses and the cigars that he continues to smoke. He says that all have informed his work, although ultimately: “How to make an abstract picture is what I care about all the time.”

The Art Newspaper: When you turned 75 did you celebrate?

Frank Stella: I didn’t want to ignore it nor was I trying to celebrate getting old.

Are you as challenged by art as when you were 12?

It has changed. The only thing that stays the same is the imagination but your ability to deal with your imagination changes as you lose physical and mental skills. There is a kind of slowing down and a kind of difficulty in reacting and you have to do the best you can. When you are younger you do the best you can because you do not know so much. But it is not a complaint: it is just different. It is a question of adjusting I guess. I do not find it easy but I am sure nobody does either.

Do you think an artist is more free than other people?

People talk about the freedom of the artist. In some way it is true but it is also a burden because having to be free it is not as easy at it seems.

You fell in love with abstraction at first sight. Do you still think the best paintings are abstract?

I was born into the age of abstraction in 1936. For me it was very straight forward: Malevich, Kandinsky and then Mondrian, they were everything to me. They have enough ideas to keep me busy or make me dizzy, actually. They were about painting. And then if I think about anything, say sculpture or architecture or graphical art, Russian constructivism—Rodchenko was overwhelming. The possibilities seemed endless. And that’s the way I see abstract art now, although it has changed.

In what way?

Take a simple example: Malevich’s White on White, 1918, not very big, an easel painting but very interesting and difficult, of course. Then take a Barnett Newman painting. The difference in scale makes two totally different things but they are driven by the same idea. Painting changed radically after the second world war, when the notion of easel painting started fading and mural size became so important for artists to express themselves. That was a big change—and a big change for me. After a while the scale of the paintings became accepted. Now it is not such a big deal.

Do you ever work on a smaller scale?

I made some small paintings for my friends when I was making the earlier stripe paintings. What was quite hard is what you might call intermediate or conventional painting, say one metre square. It has always been very hard to think at that scale.

Your current, huge studio, two hours’ drive from New York City, is like your own museum. You moved there about six years ago. Was it a conscious decision to be surrounded by your work?

It just happened. I was using it for storage and had problems with the New York studio and it evolved into the place in which I was working and also using as a warehouse. Sometimes it seems nice to be confronted by all my work, sometimes it is quite annoying. I live in the city. I plan all the work in the city and then make it in the studio.

The structure that Santiago Calatrava created for your work The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain, has completely changed. How do you see it?

The work is the result of three years of talks and mutual admiration. I think it is really interesting and it feels really good. It is a way of dealing with a conventional thing such as the surface of the canvas, but [the painting] now essentially floats, although the structure is very heavy. You understand that it is heavy but still floating, and people will be able to move around it and go inside it. The main thing is the spatial gesture. It is all about the painting wanting to rise up. Architecture likes to rise up too. The sense that the structure floats is sensational.

You talk about your admiration for Calatrava and you are very keen on architecture. One of your wishes has been to make a building, although that hasn’t happened. Do you mind?

Well I did for a while but I don’t care any more. I lost interest in it and in the struggle. But I satisfied myself because now I know I can do it and my architectural projects could finally be buildable and habitable. At first my projects did not seem to be buildable but I had one great engineer come and look at the project I was working on and I asked him a simple question: is this buildable? [And he said]: “Yes, if the Sultan of Brunei is gonna build it.”

To get such things built is a very complicated process.

It takes a terrible amount of energy and time. If you are an artist, you can retire to the peace of your studio and, for a while anyway, do what you want. But the engineer and the architect can never do that. The constraints are always bearing down, from the situation and from people. I don’t know how they [stand] it.

Do you believe in the myth of the solitary nature of artists?

There is a solitary element, and when things are not going well, you are alone and abandoned and you feel sorry for yourself. But you are also dependent on the energy of others, even if it is competitive. A lot of artists claim they work by themselves and they have their own ideas but I think it is baloney.

You are showing your latest sculptures, the “Scarlatti” series, in both Zaragoza and Jena.

I always loved Scarlatti but to tell you the truth I do not know much about music and I do not have a great ear. His harpsichord late sonatas are complicated and their rhythms are based in speed. You know, Scarlatti obviously enjoyed having the fastest fingers in Europe, and explicitly noted some passages even faster than anybody can play them. They are something very interesting, a kind of an aural graffiti. The other thing is these sonatas were mostly written later in life when he was 65 and older. That seemed to me appropriate that I would have something to work on the same age and maturity.

You have a passion for racehorses and fast cars…

My favourites are horse races on the flat. I’m also a fan of motor racing. It is a different world from the art world. In the art world people have opinions about what is best, and this and that. In the world of racing it is simpler: at the end of the race, one car or one horse gets to the final line first and that’s the best. Racing is a fairly primitive idea: to go faster and faster. That’s not sophisticated, but it has a kind of beauty to it. It’s quantifiable—exactly the opposite of art.

You’ve said: “It is all about the beauty of colours.” Is it?

I think it is all about the beauty, period. Of the whole thing, the pictorial experience. The ultimate issue [is] you want the work you make to be beautiful. But it is not always beautiful, obviously. That is the goal you strive for and it is true it is a relative situation; my idea of what’s beautiful is not going to align with anybody else’s idea of what is beautiful. Sometimes you get lucky and they see things as beautiful that you didn’t think were beautiful. Then you keep your mouth shut.

You have recently had a show that included Kandinskys at the Phillips collection in Washington, DC. Is it true he was your first inspiration?

I found out about Kandinsky at school. He was probably the first artist I was overwhelmed by. I don’t think I understood the complicated scenario about being a modern artist in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century, but I was very taken by his paintings. It was equally overwhelming to go to New York and come face to face with the art of our—my—time. The wonderful thing about New York and the galleries is that you could go into the galleries and see the best work done by the best artists for nothing. De Kooning had a new idea and had a new show and you went to 57th Street and it was right there, all laid out for you. I love quiet galleries better than crowded museums; you can be all alone in a gallery with the work of Barnett Newman [or Robert] Motherwell at your convenience. In some ways the New York scene is changing but that idea is still lingering on. That makes attractive it to live in New York.

You made your reputation with abstraction, but when you discovered Caravaggio it was a turning point. How was that?

It’s a little bit limiting to worry just because you like abstract and that is the kind of art you want to make, you are in a sense saying well I am not going have anything to do with representational art. If I find something that I like in Caravaggio’s painting or I see something on a [cave] wall in Lascaux, I want to be able to squeeze it, and feel conformable with it. But the difference for me was that when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, even though abstract expressionist painting was dominant … at the time, there always this idea of competing with another kind of art, representational art, and that it is not fruitful. Now I think it is a kind of waste of time: it seemed to me that problems in art were always and will be the same. People always liked Caravaggio because it seemed so real to them and that I always thought was a trashy idea. I mean that the illusion was so convincing that you got excited. Because after all, no matter how real it looked, it was still a flat painting: it wasn’t all that real. It was really a painting. But I must confess when I saw Caravaggio’s John the Baptist [around 1600] painting in the Capitoline Museum , it was very convincing. The figure practically led out of the painting into my arms, kind of very dramatic. But the real part was Caravaggio painting it. It is the effort of making a pictorial expression that counts. And I felt very free after that, so a representational art could do whatever want it to do and I would do whatever I wanted to do and it was really all the same. It is all about trying to be real.

• Cristina Carrillo is the curator of Frank Stella and Santiago Calatrava’s show “Elective Affinities”, scheduled to open at the IACC Pablo Serrano Museum in Zaragoza, Spain, in the autumn, final dates to be confirmed. The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain, including Calatrava’s structure, will go on display at the museum from 15 February.