Frank Stella, artist hailed as the ‘father of minimalism’ whose later work burst into audacious forms – obituary

Frank Stella with one of his pieces in 1993
Frank Stella with one of his pieces in 1993 - Post Staff Photographer/Avalon
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Frank Stella, the American artist who has died aged 87, remained at the forefront of abstract art for more than half a century; his work became seen as a harbinger of future developments from the moment he burst upon the New York art scene at the age of 23.

Stella began his career in the 1950s, producing work in the style of the Abstract Expressionists, but his breakthrough came after the debut solo show of the American artist Jasper Johns, which sold out at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York at the beginning of 1958. Intrigued by the red and white bands of Johns’s paintings of the American flag, Stella started experimenting with colourful stripes of his own.

He began working on a painting which he called Delta, “and I remember I got mad at it. So I painted over it, and went to bed. When I looked at it the next day, it didn’t look that bad. All I’d done was simplify it by painting out the bands all black. But something was happening. It had a kind of presence. That was the beginning.”

A gallery employee with two works by Stella from the 1970s, 'D. Scramble: Ascending Green Values/Ascending Spectrum', left, and 'I. Scramble: Ascending Yellow Values/Descending Spectrum'
A gallery employee with two works by Stella from the 1970s, 'D. Scramble: Ascending Green Values/Ascending Spectrum', left, and 'I. Scramble: Ascending Yellow Values/Descending Spectrum' - Christopher Pledger

Delta initiated the Black Paintings series that made Stella’s name and remain his best-known works - large, aggressive canvases covered with stripes of black enamel paint that formed repetitive, rippling patterns. In 1959, four of the Black Paintings were included in the important Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside works by Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Sombre and mesmerising, with disturbing titles such as Reichstag and Arbeit Macht Frei, the paintings took Manhattan by storm. Stella was just 23. He had his first solo exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery the following year.

In the following decade Stella produced series after series of abstract paintings. Stripes became his hallmark. He used them as the basis for complex geometric designs; laid them on top of canvases that formed unusual shapes and rendered them with flat house paints, rather than oils.

Those looking for “meaning” were told not to bother. The picture was the object, he insisted, dismissing the notion that art could be a vehicle for the expression of larger truths. “What you see is what you see,” he famously declared in 1964. As his friend, the sculptor Carl Andre, once wrote, “His stripes are the path of brush on canvas.” His purpose, said Stella, was “to keep the paint as good as it was in the can”.

Stella’s paintings did much to end the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and usher in Minimalism – so much so that he was often called the “father” of Minimalism. Yet from the late 1960s Stella began to change from a minimalist preoccupation with flatness and the suppression of illusion. His paintings became more complex in structure, colour and shape. Later he brought them off the wall, creating wildly audacious sculptural forms, with titles which invited associations with external phenomena.

This change began with a monumental series of 44 asymmetric canvases, the “Irregular Polygons”, in which Stella’s trademark stripes gave way to vast fields of sumptuous colour and the paintings took on an autobiographical flavour, named after towns in New Hampshire which the young Stella had visited on fishing trips with his father.

These paintings secured Stella’s position at the forefront of the avant–garde, and ultimately won him his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, when he was 33, making him the youngest artist to be honoured by MoMA in this way (nearly two decades later, in 1987, he became the only living artist to have had a second retrospective at the institution).

Stella's 1961 painting Delaware Crossing, with Domenico Beccafumi's Madonna and Child (c. 1542), in the run-up to a Sotheby's auction of the collection of A Alfred Taubman in 2015
Stella's 1961 painting Delaware Crossing, with Domenico Beccafumi's Madonna and Child (c. 1542), in the run-up to a Sotheby's auction of the collection of A Alfred Taubman in 2015 - Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

But his change of outlook reached its full expression in the 1970s and 1980s, when he developed a much freer, more expansive idiom which paved the way for the Neo– Expressionist and graffiti artists. His “Brazilian” and “Exotic Birds” series, with their dense profusion of florid forms, bright colours and surfaces emblazoned in glitter, caught the mood of an age that had all but turned its back on 1960s formalist abstraction. It was anything but minimal.

Stella provided a theoretical justification for this U-turn in 1983 when he was invited to give the Norton series of lectures on art at Harvard. To prepare for the lectures he decided to revisit the old masters and found himself transfixed by Caravaggio’s John the Baptist: “Up to then I had been unable to relate to the old masters, because the past for me began with Manet,” he recalled.

But Caravaggio’s work affected him profoundly: “After seeing his work, I felt reaffirmed in every way about what I wanted to do. I want my paintings and the work that I make to have that kind of immediacy. I want it to be ‘real’ in the way that Caravaggio’s painting is real.”

Claudette Mukasakindi of Rwanda runs by Stella's Puffed Star during the women's marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro
Claudette Mukasakindi of Rwanda runs by Stella's Puffed Star during the women's marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro - Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

In his lectures he offered a broad critique of the minimalist style which he had done so much to promote. “Most close-valued, shallow-surfaced painting of the last 15 years,” he declared, had been “excruciatingly dull and unpromising”. By contrast, the dramatic foreshortenings and crowded foregrounds of Caravaggio suggested both perspective and the extension of the action beyond the picture into the space of the viewer. This was just what modern painting needed, he said.

His earlier work, he suggested later – “all of that cleverness and yacking about it” – was “a kind of hiding from the fact that in some way I wasn’t acceptable and my feelings weren’t that acceptable”. But his volte face never seemed to bother him: “There’s a power in the stripe paintings that the newer ones will never have. On the other hand, there is an energy – a kind of florid excitement – in the newer works that the stripe paintings didn’t have. I don’t think you can do it all at once. That’s why you’re lucky to have a lifetime.”

Frank Philip Stella was born on May 12 1936 to first-generation immigrant Sicilians, and grew up in Malden, a blue-collar suburb of Boston. His father, a gynaecologist, sent him to Phillips Academy, Andover, where he earned a reputation for fearlessness (he once lost three front teeth in a dormitory scrap). As a child he never dreamed of becoming an artist: “My parents’ view was that artists were possibly a little better than pimps.” But at Princeton University, where he studied history, he joined a night class in painting and drawing and discovered his vocation.

After graduating in 1958 he moved to New York, where, before long, he was sharing a loft studio on West Broadway with Carl Andre and the photographer Hollis Frampton.

A Stella mural at the 2000 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
A Stella mural at the 2000 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition - Stephen Lock

Stella’s paintings could fetch millions of dollars but he did not consider himself wealthy, partly because he had expensive tastes. He liked fast cars and bred racehorses as a hobby.

A rumpled man with thick, wavy hair and a high-pitched New Yorker’s voice (reminiscent, some said of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas), Stella had a reputation of being so fiercely competitive that his friends eventually refused to play tennis with him. The gallery director Lawrence Rubin, who gave Stella his second solo show, in Paris in 1961, once said, “He doesn’t play for the fun of playing. He plays to win. And that’s the way he plays art.”

In 2009 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Obama.

In 1961 Stella married the art historian Barbara Rose, with whom he had a daughter and a son. The marriage was dissolved in 1968. He married, secondly in 1978, Harriet McGurk, a paediatrician with whom he had two sons.

Frank Stella, born May 12 1936, died May 4 2024

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