Stella was only 23 when he first showed his work at MoMA
in 1959. He’s still the youngest artist ever to have had a major retrospective at MoMA—at the age of 33, in 1970—and one of only a few to have had two retrospectives at the museum. (His second was in 1987.) His Whitney exhibition, the museum’s first major solo show in its new Renzo Piano-designed landmark in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, is Stella’s first U.S. retrospective since 1987 and the largest Stella show to date.
The 120-some works demonstrate the artist’s incomparable range of abstraction and the thrilling irreverence he displayed. That irreverence extended to his own accomplishments and transformations of his style, from his “Black,” “Aluminum,” and “Copper” paintings—works that Auping calls “the holy grail of Minimalism,” which rejected illusionism for the flat, physical presence of the canvas—to his tirelessly dynamic, mural-like paintings and sculptures that are as expressive and exuberant as his earlier works were subdued. In between, of course, are all of his innovations in color and shaped substructures, including the “Protractor Series,” his irresistibly asymmetrical “Irregular Polygons,” and the “Polish Village” series of the ’70s, which saw his work begin to come off the wall.
For those who connect Stella to his 1950s and ’60s accomplishments—his monochrome surfaces covered with right-angled stripes and his radically shaped canvases—this exhibition makes a case for just how game-changing his later paintings are as well. “In the ’70s, there was a point when everyone was saying painting was dead, and asking what painting needed. And Frank said it can’t just sit there and be about nuance and twisting the wrist, and a little dash of red there and a little dash of blue there. It needs physicality,” says Auping. “He made painting, probably more than anyone, have the physical impact of sculpture.” According to Auping, many young artists in the late ’70s and early ’80s took that to heart. “When you look at his ‘Exotic Bird’ series with all his curlicues and glitter, and layers and layers of painting three feet in depth, you know that
was looking at those. And you know that
was looking at all of these layered possibilities,” says the curator.
Stella’s impact has not only been passed on through his art, but through his teachings. In the ’80s, for instance, he gave a series of highly influential lectures at Harvard, later published in a collection titled “Working Space.” “Every artist I knew was talking about those lectures. And dealers too. Everyone was interested in the fact that this guy was sort of singlehandedly making a new case for painting. I think the ’80s were almost as important for Frank as the ’60s,” Auping recalls.
On the occasion of Stella’s retrospective, we took a look at the legendary artist’s impact on contemporary art today. This isn’t to say that the 10 artists we’re spotlighting are working in a “Stella style,” or even that they have looked to Stella for inspiration. Rather, we chose a wide array of art that would be hard to imagine today if Stella had not first paved the way with his experimentations in abstract painting.