Complex Process

It takes an effort of imagination for an ordinary viewer to recapture the enormous difficulty of Stella’s methods in the reliefs—time consuming, and requiring the coordination of many different activities and people. First he has to plan the work with a paper maquette. Normally he would do several at once. Then the maquettes have to be


Frank Stella, paper maquette for Wheelbarrow in the studio, 1986. Note other maquettes on the back wall, including the one at the far right, of a work featured in an earlier post.

disassembled and the parts sent out to be manufactured on different scales. During this whole process the attachments to the wall and ways of easily putting the parts together, packing and storing them have to be planned—all before the actual painting begins. Then the sections are painted, and after assembly in the studio perhaps overpainted. The work illustrated, Wheelbarrow, is relatively simple, but notice an important move from maquette to finished work—the lattice pattern on the domed support has been changed.


Frank Stella, Wheelbarrow (B-3, 2X) 1988

Also telling is the two year gap between the studio photo of maquettes and the date of the finished work. To sustain an effort over such a long time is very rare if not unheard of in contemporary painting. In video and film yes, but in painting we would have to go back to the old masters to find anything like it. Later in the series, in the ‘C‘ and ‘D‘ reliefs, the structures get more complex and the painting even more complex, with the cut out shapes repeated in two dimensions on the actual panels, with freehand drawing, stencils, perhaps even printing. Stella really goes to town with the color, which seems to be where the improvisation comes in. With everything set up he has a framework for freedom.

whales in paint

Frank Stella, Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth etc. (C-28, 2X) 1990

The process pretty well ensures that the studio will always contain works at different stages of completion, and this must allow for connections to be built across time and between works, making a whole out of the series. Stella denies that he ever thought of it this way, that he had enough trouble dealing with whatever was at hand at any moment, and I believe him. But that doesn’t mean that such connections couldn’t arise anyway, as Ehrenzweig has proven.

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