Review: Frank Stella

Frank Stella, Star of Persia II 1967, from the ‘Star of Persia’ series 1967
lithograph, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1973

Frank Stella: The Kenneth Tyler Print Collection,

National Galley of Australia, Canberra (until July)

Reviewer: Peter Haynes

This exhibition highlights a selection of works from 1967 to 2000 created by artist Frank Stella and master printmaker Kenneth Tyler and drawn from the NGA’s incredibly rich collection of international prints.

While the overall hang is essentially chronological there has been some play with this in the initial section of the exhibition. Works from a number of series from the 1960s and early 1970s are placed variously but relationally around the walls as one enters the exhibition. The works from the 1960s (the Black series (1967); the Star of Persia series (1967); the V series (1968); and the Copper series (1970) are each characterised by a particularly singular elegant minimalism. The simple geometries (reinforced by the deliberately limited palettes) of the forms belie the expressive depth held in each graphic iteration. Stella’s highly effective use of the positive and negative spatial configurations on the paper prefigures the exuberant yet simultaneously controlled dynamism of the later works. The artist’s use of serial imagery, his signature repetition, does not signify “sameness”. Rather it announces the individuality of each print while concurrently asserting and celebrating familial similarity throughout each series.

As we progress into the 1970s colour begins to become more dominant and varied, yet it still remains constrained by the geometric forms in which it sits. Here this is beautifully exemplified in the Newfoundland series of 1971. Arcs, squares, rectangles and elliptical forms populate overall square matrices. The layered combination of forms invested with an equally varied colour palette imbues each work with a wonderful sense of immanence, a feeling that the forms and colours will explode from the paper as indeed they will as one moves through the exhibition. The flat (though bright) colours of the above are exchanged for a more explicitly graphic delineation in the works from the Eccentric series (1974).  The forms are almost “coloured in” with networks of singly coloured lines contained within each. Forms overlay and abut in combinations that speak of the eccentricities of the series’ title. Stella’s extraordinary aesthetic inventiveness is clearly evinced in the curator’s selection of early work and is for me a highlight of the exhibition.

The implied spatial dynamism of the above is liberated into exuberant expression in the early 1980s. A particularly seductive piece is Pergusa three double from the Circuits series (1982-84). This is a visual tour de force full of surface vitality and rhythmical spatial patternings. Its myriad colours aligned with graphic marks and sinuous arabesque forms presents a celebratory sensuousness that is visually enveloping and intellectually engaging. The selection from the Swan Engravings (1982-85) exquisitely highlights Stella’s and his printer’s consummate understanding of the medium (viz. etching) and the strength of aesthetic limitation. The use of black (in varying shades) is beautifully appropriate and creates a dense and rich confection. The artist’s versatility is further underscored by the inclusion of Had Gadya (1984). There is an almost explosive collision of forms that allied with a considered use of blue tones imbues that marvellous sense of immanence that becomes a given in Stella’s aesthetic treasury.

Moving into the 1990s the artist wholeheartedly embraces a Baroque lyricism and energy where harmonious combinations of colour, line and swirling (almost centrifugal) forms speak of the painterly possibilities of the graphic media. Stella does not ever feel limited by his technical choices. He is able to draw from whatever medium he chooses the most expressive content to suit his aesthetic and thematic ends. Works from the Moby Dick series (1991 and 1992) clearly illustrate this. The Moby Dick domes series (1992) remain however for me an aberrant inclusion – just too tricky. You don’t need to be too literal in signifying (unstated) possibilities! Understatement is so much more persuasive.

This is a really good exhibition exemplifying within a limited selection the great versatility, brilliance and talent of Frank Stella. It also celebrates the unlimited possibilities innate in print media and how the coming together of one individual’s aesthetic genius with another’s astute understanding of his various media moves art beyond its materials and techniques into great expressive moments.

The book accompanying the exhibition is highly recommended.

Peter Haynes is a curator, art historian and art writer. He is currently a critic for The Canberra Times. In September 2016 his monographic study on printmaker and painter Helen Geier was published by 2B in Canberra.