At 82, artist Frank Stella has done it all and doesn’t care what people think. He’s down to earth and unguarded, safe on his perch in the pantheon after two solo retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art. He can — and did — wear white slippers for an interview and a photoshoot. Go with it.
Mr. Stella rose to fame in art shortly after graduating from Princeton in 1958, and he has been hailed for achievements such as his early Black Paintings, with their dazzling geometric rigor and power to inspire statements like his “What you see is what you see”. .”
His work evolved over the decades – the brightly colored Protractor series also became a landmark of contemporary art, and eventually his work became sculptural and very large. His studio is now in the Hudson Valley, where he often travels to make pieces that require a lot of space, such as “adjoeman” (2004), a stainless steel and carbon fiber sculpture weighing around 3,000 books that once stood on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But he and his wife, Harriet McGurk, a pediatrician, live in the same three-story house in Greenwich Village that he acquired in the late 1960s.
It’s full of art – there are lots of great mid-century abstracts by friends, peers and those he admired when he started, including Jules Olitski, Hans Hoffman and Kenneth Noland. But there is also a seascape by the 19th century painter Eugène Boudin suspended above a landscape by the Fauve artist Henri-Edmond Cross. A figurative ancient Mondrian hangs in a room.
Mr Stella has a decidedly Catholic taste in art, as evidenced by the works he is selling at Christie’s, including an untitled 1927 oil painting by Miró up for auction in London on February 27 and “A Realistic Still Life” ( 1965) by David Hockney, up for auction on March 6. In New York in May, he sold a double portrait of a couple by the Dutch painter Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1532); two of his own works, “WWRL” (1967) and “Letter on the Blind I” (1974); and Helen Frankenthaler’s “The Beach Horse” (1959). Estimates for this work range from $1.5 million to $7.5 million.
Why sell? “It’s good to have cash,” Stella said. “You don’t want to save everything for the end. I won’t be here forever.
Explaining the works he has collected, Mr Stella said: “Artists collect differently than others”, an idea he developed in conversation. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Let’s start with the living room: large colorful abstractions by your generational peers. Why?
I love all the art I grew up with. I wouldn’t bother making art if I didn’t like what people around me were doing too. It wouldn’t be fun.
There is nothing of you in this main space.
It’s nice to come home and look at paintings. I don’t need to look at my own paintings. For me, it’s a relief. I like to see them and not worry. I have nothing to settle.
You’re the only artist I’ve ever met who displays fakes of his own work.
I only own four scythes. Some people are naive enough to say, “Are you going to authenticate this work? [laughs] And then we don’t send them back when they’re wrong. They are serious, these guys who make them; they know what they are doing.
There is a painterly quality to everything on display here.
Take the Jack Youngerman for example [“Aztec III” (1959)]. Artists see each other’s work, and they recognize the touch. The way your hand moves, you can see Jack in the brush there, and you can see the same in the Olitski [“Hot Ticket” (1964)]. You know how the paint penetrates the canvas. You can see how he builds the job.
A coin you sell is Helen Frankenthaler. She was only a little older than you, but she was already famous when you arrived on the scene.
I have always loved Helen’s work and everything about her. And the most interesting part of our little “relationship” was that she once offered to trade some art for one of her smaller paintings from 1958.
And you said yes, of course?
It was so off-putting, with Helen and with Bob [Robert Motherwell, her husband then] in their apartment, I couldn’t bear to swap as I didn’t feel like I could offer anything equal. I was just intimidated. And then I bought this painting from a dealer because it was a 59 painting, from that period.
I think a lot of people would be surprised that you collected Old Masters.
The van Hemessen, I just saw it in a catalog in the 80s. The part I couldn’t resist was that it’s from 1532. The idea of having a Renaissance painting of the North in your home!
Other auction adventures?
At the time I bought this there was another Dutch Renaissance painting by Pieter Aertsen. It was estimated at $300,000 or $400,000 in a sale in Amsterdam, and I was alone in my hotel room in London. I don’t know how much I must have drunk or anything. But anyway, I picked up the phone and started bidding.
So I said, “OK, maybe I’ll go up to $400,000,” and believe me, I didn’t have the money. And I kept bidding. And I was up to $680,000 for that painting. And the guy says, “$690,000.” And I say, “What am I doing?” [laughs] “Who am I?”
And you stopped?
And I stopped.
What attracted the Miró?
It’s a nice little picture. If you think about things, it’s basically Picasso, Matisse and Miró – that’s one side of the coin; and on the other side, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevitch.
From what room?
The currency of 20th century art. This is the heart of modernism. There is a relatively figurative side and there is a completely abstract side.
And we know which side you are on.
Well, I ended up on the abstract side. But my mother was actually a figurative painter.
Did growing up with it influence you?
When I was 10 or 12 years old, I worked with my father on painting our summer house – outside and inside. And when I arrived in New York, I could tell that de Kooning had been a house painter.
How? ‘Or’ What?
Jeez, you can’t miss the brush stroke. It is a four inch brush. When I came here, making art with paint was not complicated for me. And it must be like that for people who are musicians when they can just hear something, you know?
Is it safe to say that you have a lot of your work hidden away?
There’s a big collection, but it’s in my studio. People fantasize about it sometimes, but you have to remember that it’s work that I couldn’t sell. [laughs]
I think people fantasize that there is additional black paint hidden away.
Once, as I was leaving my studio on West Broadway and had to haul things up Walker Street, I had a painting in a cart that I was pushing, and the paint kept falling – black paint, rolled up. I just folded it in half and put it in the trash can on the corner of West Broadway and Canal.
Wait, are you serious? Could anyone have found a black paint one day?
Yeah. He never reappeared.