Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Frank Stella first studied art at the Phillips Academy, Andover. He continued his study at Princeton University. After graduating he moved to New York City, where he supported himself by painting houses.
When Stella entered the art scene, many young American artists were struggling with the legacy of abstract expressionism, which had set the standard for avant-garde art since the late 1940s. Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and others had established a visual vocabulary of abstract, energetic self-expression. Although he was attracted at first by the physicality of abstract expressionism, Stella was searching for a new way to approach the canvas. The repetition, flatness, and unemotional restraint of Jasper Johns' flag and target paintings provided inspiration.
Stella's explorations began with his series of black "pin-stripe" paintings, which created a furor in the New York art world in 1959. That year, at age twenty-three, he was the youngest artist included in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition Sixteen Americans. Stella's method of working systematically in a series emphasized his problem-solving approach to painting. He arranged flat color fields into repetitive, geometric patterns and created all-over, non-illusionistic surfaces. His logic, control, and extreme reductionism prefigured minimalism.
Stella continued working in an austere style through the early 1960s, but gradually his canvases assumed curvilinear shapes and a bright palette. In the 1970s he moved from works on flat surfaces to compositions which projected out from the wall. First Stella made collages, then shallow reliefs, and finally fully spatial constructions like the Circuit series. The complex shapes and the colorful, painterly marks of more recent work refer to the gestural abstract art of the 1950s. While the scale and size of Stella's works have become grander, the process has become more spontaneous. The artist continues to push the relationship of figure and ground to the point of minimizing the ground. The result is sculptural.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]