“My art is about building things,” Frank Stella told Alina Cohen in an Artsy conversation about his 2019 Marianne Boesky Gallery solo show, which included Jasper’s Split Star and Nessus and Dejanira—two of the star sculptures currently on view (through May 9, 2021) at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. “Frank Stella’s Stars, A Survey” consists of 25 works in a variety of media, ranging from paintings and works on paper from the 1960s to digitally designed and 3D-printed sculptures of the past decade.
Although Stella started out as a painter—whose work was famously acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1959, when he was just 23 years old, through a fund set up by Larry Aldrich—he began making shaped canvases in the 1960s and, by the mid-1970s, had pushed his hybrid paintings into the third dimension. The earliest work in the show is the star-shaped painting Port Tampa City (1963), an orange-colored canvas from the “Dartmouth Paintings” series, 13 works executed during or near the time of his artist residency at Dartmouth College in 1963. Attributed to a 1961 visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s dynamic Anne Pfeiffer Chapel on the Florida State University campus, the eight-by-eight-foot, eight-pointed, star-shaped painting consists of concentric right angles painted as wide strips of color with raw canvas delineating the forms.
The sculpture that comes closest to the painting, in both color and shape, is the massive Frank’s Wooden Star (2014), made of teak. Sited outdoors, as part of a joyous installation of energetic works “orbit[ing] the museum,” as exhibition co-curator Amy Smith-Stewart describes it, the digitally designed, hand-built star is reduced to its highly refined essence. Located on a stretch of lawn behind the museum, it is cleverly placed in conversation with another giant, freestanding work, Jasper’s Split Star (2017). Cast in aluminum, the 12-pointed structure has six open-work arms spray-painted in pale shades of gray, purple, and blue, while the other six are a solid, silvery gray. Related in concept to Jasper’s Dilemma (1962), a painting of paired concentric squares in contrasting colors and gray tones, the sculpture—like most of Stella’s transformative star works—personifies Jasper John’s celebrated maxim, “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
In addition to Johns, Robert Rauschenberg also made an impact on Stella when he was coming into his own as an artist in the 1950s. As much as Stella was taken by John’s Target paintings, he was equally intrigued by Rauschenberg’s Combines, which seem as related to Nessus and Dejanira (2017) as Stella’s own “Exotic Bird” and “Indian Bird” series from the late 1970s. Named for figures in Greek mythology, the 12-foot-high Nessus and Dejanira consists of a jumbo, pastel-colored lattice star, cast in aluminum and stuck in a giant, bright-white, fiberglass smoke ring. These elements rest on an aluminum floor stand, backed by an interlocking metal grid painted in soft colors corresponding to those of the star. Traditionally, artists have portrayed the abduction of Dejanira by the centaur Nessus as a lustful struggle, which ironically matches Stella’s thoughts about smoking his coveted cigars—something that he relishes, despite his wife’s objections.
The equally complex K.159 (2013) and K.359 (2014) are digitally designed and printed, hand-assembled sculptures from the “Scarlatti Sonata Kirkpatrick” series, which Stella began in 2006 and continues to produce. To create these types of pieces, he crafts a form, scans and refines it on the computer, and then 3D prints it, while fabricating other parts in stainless steel, which he frequently paints using automotive spray paint. Inspired by the harpsichord sonatas of 18th-century Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti, which were catalogued and numbered by Yale musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953, Stella’s baroque constructions mimic the visual rhythm and movement of the music. The maquette for K.159, which is currently being considered as a large public sculpture for the New York Aquarium, consists of several different types of stars colliding into one another, while K.359—looking like a cross between an industrially designed insect and a 1950s satellite—brandishes two combined stars partially encased in a blue and white, curvilinear metal skin and proudly sitting on four legs.
A group of wall-mounted and tabletop, computer-generated sculptures and maquettes, along with several indoor and outdoor standalone stars of various sizes, successfully round out the engaging selection of works on view. While the subject matter might seem the same, the exhibition offers compelling insight into the complex ideas and fascinating ways of working that Stella continues to employ. The well-known saying that he coined about his Minimalist paintings, “What you see is what you see,” still holds true for the sculptures that he is making today.