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Frank Stella: Irregular Polygons

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2010-11
25th Anniversary Issue
Brian Kennedy, Director

Frank Stella has had a long and prolific career at the forefront of abstract art. A consistent innovator who prefers to produce works in series, he has immersed himself in visual thinking and creating, according to certain key artistic principles: “Line, plane, volume and point, within space.”(1) His famous 1964 quip about his work— “What you see is what you see”(2) — has long been misrepresented as a testament to secularism and literalism, though one suspects that his sentiment was in fact more in line with that of Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”(3)

In this sense, then, the Irregular Polygons series of 1965–66 is startlingly dramatic and original. Although based on simple geometries, these paintings comprise one of the most complex artistic statements of Stella’s career. Each of eleven compositions combines varying numbers of shapes to create daringly irregular outlines, and the artist made four versions of each composition, varying their color combinations. Until now, the paintings have never been shown together in their entirety.(4) The Irregular Polygons marked a radical shift from Stella’s earlier striped paintings in their use of large fields of color. These asymmetric canvases played with illusion, thereby confronting Stella’s previous emphasis on flatness while anticipating his career-long exploration of space and volume in both painting and sculpture. The paintings were also the subject of art historian Michael Fried’s influential study “Shape as Form,” which in turn sparked a critical debate about “literal” and “depicted” shapes.(5)

In 1985, the year the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College opened to the public, Frank Stella spoke at the college’s annual convocation ceremony and received an honorary degree. In 1963, he had been an artist-in-residence at the college, making works for the series that became known as the Dartmouth Paintings, each of which was named after a city in Florida that he had visited on a road trip two years before. In 1965–66, in turn, he would name each of the eleven compositions of his Irregular Polygons series after small towns in New Hampshire. Here the connection between art and title is more direct: during his boyhood, his father had brought him to a family camp near Ossipee for fishing trips in the lakes and rivers of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. This connection, coupled with Stella’s previous interactions with Dartmouth, makes an exhibition bringing together one of each of his compositions for the Irregular Polygons an appropriate way of marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hood Museum of Art in 2010. Along with the eleven Irregular Polygons, the exhibition includes preparatory drawings for them; the print series Eccentric Polygons (1974), which was based on the Irregular Polygons; and a few of his latest works, the Polychrome Reliefs. Together these objects testify to an outstanding artistic career and provide an exciting opportunity to engage with the “complex simplicity” that is the paradox of Stella’s art.

The book accompanying the exhibition provides an overview of the development of shaped paintings— those that are not square or rectangular in format—and details Frank Stella’s particular contribution to art in the early and mid-1960s, when he began exploring the pictorial possibilities of intentionally shaped paintings in series after series. In 1960 his Aluminum Paintings generated interest because their decorative patterns and the shape of their stretchers were in synchrony, causing them to be almost rectangular works but with notches and indentations at the edges. In 1962–63, he first made the drawings that would anticipate his dramatic development in 1965 of irregularly shaped paintings, the likes of which had never been seen before. The Irregular Polygons attracted a great deal of attention from critics, including especially Michael Fried’s close reading of them. The publication and exhibition invite a reassessment of Stella’s works up to 1966, culminating in the Irregular Polygons, a hugely fertile period of artistic exploration imaginatively executed by one of art’s truly profound thinkers.

1. Frank Stella in an interview with Brian Kennedy, New York, April 21, 2009.
2. Stella’s comment was made during a February 1964 discussion with Donald Judd that was broadcast on WBAI-FM, New York, as part of a series produced by Bruce Glaser. The exchange was edited by Lucy Lippard and published as “Questions to Stella and Judd: Interview by Bruce Glaser,” Art News (September 1966): 55–61, and reprinted in Gregory Battock (ed.), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 148–64 (quotation cited is on 158).
3. Alice Calaprice (ed.), The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 314.
4. Ten of the compositions were displayed at the Pasadena Museum of Art (October 18–November 20, 1966) and at the Seattle Art Museum Pavilion (January 12–February 12, 1967). Seven were shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York (March 5–April 6, 1966) and five at the 30th Biennial of the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. (February 24–April 9, 1966). Also in 1966, paintings from the Irregular Polygons series were shown at the David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto (April 15–May 8) and at Kasmin Gallery Limited, London (November 11–December 3). Since that year, groups of up to four of the paintings have appeared in various exhibitions of Stella’s works at venues in Europe and America.
5. Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings,” Artforum (November 1966): 18–27.

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