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Death of Frank Stella, the most spectacular painter-sculptor

One of America's last giants of postwar art is no more.

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Death of Frank Stella, the most spectacular painter-sculptor

One of America's last giants of postwar art is no more. Barely more than a month after the death of the monumental and Corten steel sculptor, Richard Serra, on March 26 at the age of 85, another post-war American monument disappears to enter the art history books. Frank Stella is the American painter and sculptor whose very large formats are in glory at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) which offered him a retrospective in 1970, making him the youngest artist thus celebrated, and dedicated to him a total of 73 exhibitions. The Whitney Museum in New York dedicated an entire floor to him for its spectacular 2015 retrospective. He is in majesty at the Guggenheim in New York and Bilbao, at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, and at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.

The man who began his long and prolific career with his first very minimalist works, the one fought over by museums and private collectors, the artist of artists, died at the age of 87, in his house in Manhattan, victim of lymphoma, reported tonight the New York Times. Frank Stella came close to the 88-year-old mark. He was a New York legend, like the Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart building in the East Village which served as his studio from 1978 to 2005, before opting for the one in Newburgh to the north of New York.

Born in Maiden on May 12, 1936 in Massachusetts, to parents who came from Italy, this eldest of three siblings studied at Phillips Academy, trained with the abstract painter Patrick Morgan, and was introduced at a young age by the painter Stephen Greene and art historian William Seitz, on the New York stage. Influenced by abstract expressionism, the American post-war movement which swept away the idea of ​​realism, he took the path of abstraction and minimalism with his first “Black Paintings” (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959, the black of the painting highlighted by a light line which draws a labyrinth). Made with industrial paint, they blurred the idea of ​​geometry by alternating painted bands and spaces on the canvas left blank. Today they are museum pieces, from New York to Basel, from London to Amsterdam.

This cigar smoker with dark charm would have had his place in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy, as he was such a concentrated male with Italian-American charm. A man of action, a man of few words, with easily sarcastic retorts, he was the prototype of the fierce artist, although adored by collectors and institutions who organized ultra VIP evenings in Manhattan of which he was the Jupiter. This artist, recognized very early, rejected attempts to interpret his work by American critics. In 1961, he affirmed - between provocation and a way of cutting short any gloss - that a painting was only a “flat surface with paint on it”.

“In 1959, the American Frank Stella (born in 1936), then barely twenty years old, conquered the New York art scene overnight. He revolutionized abstract painting thanks to his Black Paintings produced the same year – one of them Morro Castle is now part of the Basel collection,” underlines the Kunstmuseum Basel during the exhibition of his collections, at the summer 2015, in “Frank Stella – Paintings

“Following these “black paintings” of 1959, Stella developed the Shaped Canvases in the 1960s, which represented a decisive progression in her conception of painting. The contours of these paintings dialogue with the interior space, which creates an unprecedented correspondence between the painting and the shape of the frame,” analyzes the large Swiss museum. The major retrospective of 100 works since the 1950s, which the Whitney Museum in New York dedicated to him in the winter of 2015, showed how his painting became sculpture: first by optical illusion of his alternating stripes, in black and white, then in colors, by the play of repetition of patterns opposing these two types of palettes, then by the format, sometimes enormous, then by the play of shapes, more and more complex which escaped from the painting like a furious animation in 3D.

The most spectacular of painter-sculptors, always championed in Paris by the gallery owner Daniel Templon, has thus conquered museums (huge multi-colored painting at the Kunstmuseum in Basel in the underground part which connects the Haupbau to the Neubau), but also private collections like this by Philippe Austruy at the Commanderie de Peyrassol (Tengan-Tenganan, 2009, scarlet sculpture between the boat sail and the celestial star in fiberglass and stainless steel tubes, 317 x 670 x 91 cm). And of course that of his friend Bernar Venet who brought him fame in his Venet Foundation in Le Muy, near Fréjus, and where he ordered a custom-made pavilion that combines architecture and XXL painting. All in the (almost) free air.

“I first met Frank Stella in 1966 during my first trip to New York, while I was living in Arman's studio just above his on Walker Street,” Bernar Venet told Le Figaro, deeply upset. “But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we began a truly friendly relationship. Despite his kindness and availability towards me, I was always intimidated by Frank, and I always approached him with immense respect. I knew that I had before me a giant at the highest level in the history of art, he was the absolute model of what an artist must do, which is to constantly question what is acquired and not believing that what we have created is sufficient. Frank had the brain of a 25-year-old artist until the end.”

“Each year of his immense career has allowed us to discover new formal proposals, always in a dynamic of permanent renewal. No artist of his generation experienced this constant heroism and each outburst from Frank was a surprise to everyone,” underlines Bernar Venet, the visceral collector who could not resist his fascination with Frank Stella, even if it meant bordering on the unreasonable. “He suffered from it, and we talked several times together about the public's resistance to his works over the last thirty years. People did not understand how a work as sober and flat as his first black paintings could have been transformed, each year more and more, into excessive and powerfully colored reliefs. His typically formalist approach was that of a dissatisfied researcher, convinced that the field of possibilities is infinite, much larger than anything that has been thought and produced up to our time.

Artists are those who speak best about artists. “His influence on minimal art artists is today recognized historically. And I would add that its influence on a new generation, oriented towards excessive and ever more complex abstraction, is obvious. He said of himself to defy the comments of some who did not understand his unfaithfulness to his early minimalist works: “I am a maximalist.” Our incredulous perception of his recent work is similar to that of people who discovered abstract art for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century. Frank was always one step ahead of us all and we were blind to his relief paintings which disturbed our sensibilities too much. A giant has just left us. Time and our adaptation to his recent work will prove to us the immensity of an artistic production on the scale of the greatest.”

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