Frank Stella


Trying (and failing) to get into Frank Stella’s paintings:
Naked ladies
Donald Duck

Frank Stella had come to Toronto to help promote an exhibition of his prints from the collection of a friend of his who owned the Adelaide Club, where the prints were being shown. The night of the opening my friend and I went and realized that the Adelaide Club was not, as we’d expected, a gentlemen’s club with bookshelves lining the walls, but rather a health club—a fitness center—and so among those who arrived in all their elegance to drink the free wine and eat the canapés and hear Frank Stella say a few words were men and women sweating through their spandex, passing among the hobnobbers with towels thrown over their shoulders, on their way to and from the locker rooms. It was bizarre.

The next day I met Mr. Stella in the Adelaide Club once again. It was eleven in the morning. All signs of the former night’s elegance were gone. The long white drapes that had obscured the squash courts were pulled back to reveal men in shorts and wristbands. On the counter where there had been white wine were now cups of yogurt and granola. We sat at a high table and Mr. Stella wore a fleece vest with TEAM STELLA embroidered in small letters above a pocket.

Frank Stella, born in 1936 in Malden, Massachusetts, has been considered a major American artist for almost fifty years, becoming, in 1970, the youngest artist ever to have a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is best known for the monochromatic pinstriped paintings that first brought him to prominence, which when seen in person have a very moving, vulnerable quality, and (a few years later) for his color-field paintings on irregularly shaped canvases. He helped legitimize printmaking as an artform in the late 1960s, and his work in the 1980s included paintings in high relief on objects such as freestanding metal pieces that contrasted with his early, minimalist works. He seems to be all over Toronto—a bright, mural-size work of intertwining half-circles from 1970, Damascus Gate, Stretch Variation, hangs high on a wall in the David Mirvish bookshop, where I first saw his work as a child. In the past twenty years, he has taken on architecturally scaled sculptural commissions, such as the design of the interior of the Princess of Wales Theatre here, as well as an installation in front of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.

Frank Stella spoke especially quickly during this interview, with much energy and an air of distraction. After it was done, while waiting for the elevator to go back up to the main floor of the mall, I noticed Mr. Stella leaning over a railing, looking at one of the paintings he had made in the 1980s, hanging high above a fleet of StairMaster machines below.

—Sheila Heti


THE BELIEVER: I know you speak a lot about “quality” and quality in art—do you think it’s just as legitimate to devote your life to quality in some other area, other than art? Like a really quality pizza shop or being a really quality teacher?

FRANK STELLA: Yeah, you know, nobody wants to fly on an airline that’s 85 percent successful at landing their planes. So one of the things about art is—I think it’s a problem—that you can’t train an artist anymore. There was an assumption before—with the academies—that you could get a trainable result, and that would result in quality, but that hasn’t been the case in a long time. Art actually doesn’t have a style of education, although we continue to have art schools. All my teachers told me, “Don’t go to art school.” That was their absolute advice.

BLVR: What do you mean, “anymore”? Do you think there was a time one could train artists?

FS: Well, certainly in the seventeenth century we had academic training, and there was the apprentice system in the Renaissance—people did learn certain techniques. But we don’t have that now. With the rise of abstraction and the demise of mimetic art, when you’re not trying to make an image that represents something so someone can tell what that image is supposed to be, what kind of technique do you need? I mean, you need technique to make the image arresting or something you could care about, but you can pretty much do that any way you want to.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sheila Heti is the author of the novel Ticknor (FSG) and the story collection The Middle Stories (McSweeney’s). She has also contributed interviews with Dave Hickey and Mary Midgley to the Believer.

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