The Creation of Frank Stella's Large-Scale Sculptures.
In 1983 a wonderful opportunity presented itself to me. Swan Engraving in Bridgeport, CT (to whom The Swan Engravings series by Frank Stella was named after), was looking for someone to join the team that fabricated the large-scale aluminum sculptures this artist had begun creating recently. I was a painting and printmaking major in college, and had little experience in sculptural fabrication, but I took the job and came up to speed immediately with the process used to create these “dimensional” paintings. Within a couple of weeks, I was building my first sculpture. My favorite quote by Stella – “A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere” seemed to me to capture exactly what these works were about.
The process went like this: Perhaps there was a quick scribble or sketch, or not, but a small maquette was made by the artist out of white foamcore, held togeather by toothpicks and glue. This was approximately 20 inches square. We would take this model and scale it up piece by piece to the desired size and transfer the dimensions onto a huge roll of paper, then cut each shape out with scizzors. Next, two magnesium plates were glued together using industrial-strength glue, with a piece of honeycomb aluminum sandwiched between them for strength. This, by the way, is how airplane wings were made, because it creates a shape with strength and lightness. If there was to be any kind of etched design in the surface of the magnesium, this would be done first, of course. After the glue had set, we would use a small reciprocating saw and with the enlarged paper cutout taped on top of this metal sandwich, cut out the shape as smoothly as we could, so filing the edges of the sharp metal down afterward would be as easy as possible. For added strength and stability, and to finish the piece, an epoxy-type mixture was mixed together with a kind of metal powder. It had to be quickly and evenly applied all the way around each piece of the sculpture, and to keep it from dripping or leaking out of the edges, we used brown tape. When this dried, it was a dark grey color with little shiny particles embedded in the mixture, which you had to look closely to see. Another quick filing of all the edges finished off each piece of the sculpture.
The actual assembling of the various pieces of the sculpture to bring the artists vision to life was, for me at least, the most fun and exciting part of the process. There was no diagram, or any kind of written directions to follow. Basically, you engineered the fabrication as you went along, on your own and in real time. You couldn’t really teach this to anybody; you either could visualize in your minds eye where to place and how to assemble the various pieces so they would appear as if floating in air, or not. For most pieces, aluminum stock, (about one eight of an inch thick by two to three inches wide), because of it’s lightness and ease of bending and drilling, was used. Nothing more than a tape measure and adjustable angle were used to figure out how long these pieces of aluminum had to be, and how many bends, and at what angles. Because of the forgiving nature of aluminum, everything did not have to be cut or angled exactly. Close was usually good enough. The difference could be made up with a little pushing, pulling and twisting of the various pieces of metal to get them to line up as desired. The method used to attach these aluminum brackets to the magnesium/aluminum sandwiches was by drilling holes in the brackets, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, marking the placement on the pieces of sculpture it supports/attaches to with graphite, (everything is temporarily held in place with various size clamps), loosen the clamps and take the piece of sculpture down, drill a half inch hole where marked, fill with epoxy, and insert a female thread and let it set up. Once it has dried, the piece was put back up and clamped, and a quarter inch threaded bolt was placed through the bracket and threaded into it’s female counterpart on the sculpture piece. This technique worked for ninety percent of Stella’s sculptures. The other ten percent were so massive and heavy that iron bars had to be welded together to support the weight. If this sounds complicated, it wasn’t. Just take a look at one of these sculptures in a museum, gallery, public or private space, from it’s side, and you will see all the fabrication details I have talked about. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
You might be thinking, how do these giant pieces of sculpture get inside the gallery or museum space? The answer is obvious! They have to be taken apart, bolt by bolt, everything labeled, transported in a large truck to the destination, re-assembled in the proper order. This was always my least favorite part of the job. But, before these sculptures could go on public display, they were often painted by Stella at his studio in New York City. Again, the pieces would have to be disassembled, transported to the artists studio, put on wooden horses so they could have paint applied to a horizontal surface so the paint wouldn’t drip, and once dry, re-assembled so Stella could look at them on the wall, painted, before deciding if they needed any other touches.
On his visits to the Swan Engraving studio, which occupied the second floor of a large, Pre-WWII brick building in a run-down section of town, Frank Stella was invariably accompanied by his print publisher and Master Printer, Kenneth Tyler. Ken was a man in constant motion, and he was used to being in charge, but so was Bob Swan, the owner of Swan Engraving. It was entertaining to see these two business partners and friends interact with each other, each trying to get the upper hand, but in a very playful way. Ken Tyler was very protective of Frank Stella. I felt like Frank was almost un-approachable, so well did Ken build an invisible, protective shield around him, so the creative process could happen without any disturbances. Therefore, the only side of Frank Stella I saw was all business. He would come to the studio, do whatever project was at hand, and leave when it was finished. He didn’t interact with the studio personnel, as far as I could see, except when it concerned the work. When I think of him, I see three things: his hair, which usually stood straight up, his finger that was half missing, and the stub of a cigar that he often held in that hand with the missing half finger.