By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
Frank Stella, the 76-year-old lion of modern art, shared his views on abstraction with a crowd of 300 art lovers at the New Orleans Museum of Art Friday (March 1) night. Stella's lecture filled NOMA's auditorium and was broadcast via video to a spillover crowd seated on folding chairs in the great hall.
Stella first made his mark on the art world in the 1950s with his audaciously simple geometric paintings. On Stella's canvases, all the natural world and all of art history was reduced to squares, crosses and arches. He appeared in the NOMA auditorium without fanfare, looking every bit the beatnik-era intellectual, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a gray jacket over a black sweatshirt. Peeking from the collar and cuffs was an eye-catching plaid shirt that was especially remarkable because the startling colors matched his painting titled "Scramble" projected on the screen behind him.
Using a blackboard that had been positioned to the side of the stage, Stella drew a small diagram to explain the fundamental visual effects at work in the 1978 painting. "Scramble" includes 12 squares nestled precisely inside of one another.
Stella explained that he painted every other square in a color of the rainbow, beginning with red in the center, then orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Separating the rainbow squares are yellow squares that begin brightly in the center, but become progressively paler and as they move toward the edge. The prism colors and various shades of yellow act like perspective to draw our eyes into the depths of the painting, Stella said, while simultaneously giving the illusion that the squares telescope into space like an old-fashioned camera bellows.
I'm sure that everyone in the room hopes Stella's chalk drawings and notes will be preserved as a souvenir of the night. Stella's lecture is the first in a NOMA series provided by museum benefactors Donna Perret Rosen and Ben Rosen. Museum director Susan Taylor, who led the the discussion with Stella, said the series was a birthday gift from Ben to Donna, who was once proprietor of a Julia Street art gallery. The Rosens, who own Stella's "Scramble," plan to donate the valuable painting to NOMA.
Stella said that as a student, he was assigned a convention still life subject to paint. Instead of reproducing the contours and shadows of the still-life as the other students did, he produced a rebelliously lumpy pointillist painting that convinced his teacher to allow him to go his own way. Ironically, early in his professional career, the thin, smooth application of paint was key to his style. "The flatter it is, the more abstract it is, at least in my generation," he said.
"The flatter it is, the more abstract it is, at least in my generation" — Frank Stella.
But he added, somewhat surprisingly, that the flat abstraction that won him a place in every modern art textbook has its limitations, since it "lacked a human figure and that vitality." The deadpan humility of the statement was disarming. But I can reassure Mr. Stella that his paintings can and do include the human figure. On the second floor of the museum where “Scramble” is on display, a steady stream of viewers studied the flatness of the painting from close range, adding a charming human touch to the composition.
Stella said that over the years he experimented with art-making materials from magnesium to honeycomb aluminum to smoke rings. He said his use of untraditional media should come as no surprise since, when he came of age, artists were employing everything from Jasper Johns' encaustic (wax) paint to "every piece of junk Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly could find."
By the end of the lecture, Stella had touched on art education, the renaissance masters and the art business. Unfortunately, personal anecdotes were few. The audience, which includes at at least a dozen New Orleans artists (Gene Koss, Jonathan Traviesa, Robin Levy, Maxx Sizeler, Wayne Amedee, George Dunbar and Simon Gunning among others) left happy with the theoretical wisdom they'd leaned at the feet of the master. But the master himself remained rather opaque.
As the applauds died down, Stella left the stage grasping a New Yorker magazine. Later, he could be found seated sphinxlike outside the museum, in the shadow of his brown fedora, puffing a cigar.