Frank Stella is one the best known, most important, and most regularly provocative artists of the modernist tradition. When he made his first black “pinstripe” paintings in 1959 and then declared “What you see is what you see” he was imagined to be deliberately rejecting the romantic idealism of abstract expressionism and proposing a particularly nihilist brand of minimalism. Over the next few years he pioneered a series of innovative styles that seemed both to relate back to those original pinstripes and at the same to become increasingly sumptuous, and eventually even baroque. So, somewhat perversely, he seemed able to remain true to his iconoclastic principles while turning them on their head.
A reminder of how long Frank Stella has been one of the art world’s larger-than-life personalities is offered next Wednesday, March 25, when the BMW Art Car that he designed in 1976 goes on show at Grand Central Station, alongside the cars designed by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein, and a 30’ x 40’ section of a new painting by Robin Rhode who used a BMW Z4 Roadster to apply the color.
Earlier this week I had to the chance to talk to Mr Stella about what we might learn about his art from a 33-year-old car, and our conversation moved swiftly on to some quite fundamental issues – including a good old-fashioned assertion of the primacy of abstraction!
Frank, can you tell me about the design that you came up for your 1976 BMW?
The starting point for the art cars was racing livery. In the old days there used to be a tradition of identifying a car with its country by color. Now they get a number and they get advertising. It’s a paint job, one way or another. The idea for mine was that it’s from a drawing on graph paper. The graph paper is what it is, a graph, but when it’s morphed over the car’s forms it becomes interesting, and adapting the drawing to the racing car’s forms is interesting. Theoretically it’s like painting on a shaped canvas.
You see it as having more to do with fine art painting than automobile design?
It wasn’t really a design problem. I’m not really a good designer, and I don’t aspire to be one. But I tried to see what I could do. And it worked out pretty well, actually. Better than I thought it would.
You worked on a scale model that BMW provided, yes?
Right. We did it all by hand, cutting and pasting on an actual scale model. Nowadays you could do it all in Photoshop in about two and a half minutes! Also, designing the model is one thing, but getting the car painted is another. But the German automobile painters are so good at what they do, and they liked the design because it was geometric and mechanical. They were used to technical drawing and they saw the design in relation to the car.
But weren’t you using those French curves and other technical drawing devices in your Exotic Birds paintings at the same time?
The idea of drawing those shapes is that somewhere, somehow, there is an implied rectangular background, which is delimited by the grid. The surface of the car was just a little bit different from the basically flat plane of the canvas. Even though the Exotic Birds had a constructed plane, it was still basically the conventional pictorial plane.
Did designing the BMW teach you lessons you could apply to your art, then?
No. But I think that the racing, and the whole ethos of racing, had a big impact on me. Because really racing is all about the construction of the cars. We only see the surface, but the people who are really into racing are interested in what’s underneath that surface.
A couple of years ago you had that show at the Metropolitan Museum – and an installation on the roof – which was called “Art into Architecture”. Do you see similarities between the overlap between art and architecture and the point at which art meets motor racing design?
I think so. Certainly the sculptures in that show, with the tubing and the carbon fiber, are straight out of my racing experience.
It strikes me that your art is always on its way from one thing to another. Whatever you’re working on, you always seem to be planning the next step ahead.
Well, maybe it seems that way, but it doesn’t quite work like that. It’s more about ideas running ahead, or things leading on to other things. For me it’s all about abstraction, and it always has been. And it’s also still about the fundamentals: line, plane, and volume. That’s all you have, and it’s what you make out of them that is important.
But I do like working outside of the art world. There’s a sense of purpose and a sense of using what’s technologically available. And it has standards: an effort is made to get things just right. That’s what counts. Whereas in art there’s always a conflict. On the one hand you really want to get it right, but on the other hand things have to be unfettered. So getting it right can’t mean that geometry has to be absolutely rigid, or anything like that, because that’s restricting.
You mean that in art the idea is always just slightly more important than the practicalities?
Yes. And more important than the finish, in the end. It’s a given that the expressive element in art exists in the hand and mind of the artist, but technology hides the hand a lot. When they build a car they don’t want you to see any of the bits where a guy had to bend something by hand.
You just mentioned the importance of abstraction. Have you always had an unshakable faith in abstraction?
Yes. I was born into it, as it were. And abstraction seems to me to have the greatest potential, in all honesty. If you look at the history of the twentieth century, you have abstraction and you have representation. The great artists who revolutionized what would turn out to be the older tradition – Picasso, Matisse, and Miró – produced great, great painting. But they were side by side with Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. So, although the balance shifted over to the representational side for a time, the end result was that the best painting that happened in the second half of the twentieth century came out of abstraction. And although there’s still plenty of representational art, and it can be good, it doesn’t carry the directness and the force and the import that abstraction does. Abstraction is what I like, and it’s what I feel I should do. I feel left with it. I feel responsible.
You mean you have the responsibilities of one of abstraction’s senior artists?
Unfortunately that’s true, I guess.
You did come up with one of high abstraction’s watchwords. Do you ever regret having said “What you see is what you see”?
No. Though I resent hearing it so much. It’s a tautology obviously, and it’s obvious, but I really meant it in a rather innocent way, which was “There’s nothing I can do about what you can see. I do the best I can but at the end of the day that’s how it’s going to turn out.” And I suppose you can’t avoid that. But we have now had over 110 years of abstraction, and it hasn’t turned out to be a dead end. It hasn’t turned out to be limited. In fact, just look at [Michael] Heizer and Richard Serra and [John] Chamberlain, work of that level, and think of the best paintings of [Jules] Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler and [Morris] Louis and [Kenneth] Noland. Those are pretty spectacular efforts.
Abstraction is just as challenging as ever, and ultimately it’s about your own individual psychology. Consciousness is limited, but there’s something about abstraction that appeals on a level that – though I’m not sure it’s really a higher level – is a level of awareness that’s really exciting, actually.