Humble Words From an Abstract Artist: “What You See is What You See”

Part of the Frank Stella mural at Malden High School

By Sky Malerba

Malden Arts Mondays is a two-month long celebration of artists and figures who have been born in Malden. Week Three of Malden Art’s Monday features renown artist Frank Stella.

A Malden native and New York resident, Frank Stella tricks and pleases the eye with his abstraction and minimalist work which stood out in the art scene of the ’50s and ’60s.

Harran II, a color field painting from 1967 currently displayed at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

As an accomplished painter, sculptor and printmaker, Stella left his mark on pieces both in two-dimensional works and in three-dimensional space. His work includes the set and costumes for Scramble, a dance piece by Merce Cunningham in 1967, and a series of pieces called Protractor, which play with the intersection of geometric shapes and interplaying colors. In 1966, in a much quoted remark, he said, “What you see is what you see.”

Testing the boundaries of his understanding of shapes and mass, he delved more into sculpture starting with using canvases of irregular shapes, and then pasting free-standing metal pieces on them with paint. This experimentation would lead to increasingly more ambitious projects such as a series responding to the classic novel Moby Dick.

The Shark Massacre (1988) by Frank Stella, one piece in a series meditating on Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick

Stella also became a member of the Artists Rights Society, which granted him a sturdy platform to protest against a revoked penalty for infringement of a work if the creator cannot be contacted or located. His thoughts were documented in an Op-Ed for The Art Newspaper, 

“…Few artists can afford the costs of federal litigation: attorneys’ fees in our country vastly exceed the licensing fee for a typical painting or drawing. The Copyright Office proposal would have a disproportionately negative, even catastrophic, impact on the ability of painters and illustrators to make a living from selling copies of their work… It is deeply troubling that government should be considering taking away their principal means of making ends meet—their copyrights.”

In 2018, the Malden Public Library acquired three Stella works and the artist returned to Malden for the unveiling ceremony in November.

John Giso, library benefactor, and artist Frank Stella (right) unveil one of Stella’s works at the reception (November 2018) at the Malden Public LIbrary.  (Photo by Paul Hammersley, 3MG)

Given that Stella focused on abstraction it makes sense that he would leave the interpretation of his art to the viewer without interference. Says Stella, “After all, the aim of art is to create space… space within which the subjects of painting can live.”

The goal of Malden Arts Mondays is to provide Malden residents (particularly families, young children and tweens/teens) with fun activities that help them get to know Malden’s cultural history and contributions, and bring out the creative in all of us. All activities can be done with safe, social distancing during this time of the coronavirus pandemic. For more information about the program, click here.

Previous Malden Arts Monday artists and figures are:

Ed Emberley

Herbert L. Jackson

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