Frank Stella ’54 Pioneered Abstract Expressionism and Modernism

On Friday afternoon, Frank Stella ’54 watched the school pass him by from a metal wicker chair outside the Andover Inn. By the look of the half-finished cigar he held in his left hand, he had been watching for a while. The earthy smell clung to his words even after the cigar’s smoke had dissipated.

Stella is a leading abstract artist. His Wikipedia page will tell you that he is one of the “most well-regarded postwar American painters still working today,” that his work in abstract expressionism and modernism is pioneering, that he was awarded a National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama in 2009. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art names him as the source behind the phrase, “What you see is what you see,” that served as the genesis of modern minimalism.

Stella was on campus Friday to receive the Andover Alumni Award of Distinction, given annually to Phillips and Abbot Academy alumni who have “served with distinction in their fields of endeavor.” Stella did not seem fazed to join a list that includes President George H.W. Bush ’42, William Knowles ’95, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and, this year, Hafsat Abiola ’92 and George Church ’72. Rather, he regarded his return to campus with a sort of humorous nostalgia.

“It is a little different,” he said. “I have been back a few times before, but this time, I really feel old. I really can’t hide it.”

Stella graduated from Andover in 1954 as a “pretty average student” in all aspects but wrestling, where he excelled as an integral part of the team. “I spent as much time playing sports as I did making art. I was not really part of the artsy community.”

After struggling with “low-level delinquency” at his old school, Stella said his parents shipped him off to Andover as “a punishment.” After unknowingly impressing the school’s wrestling coach at a practice prearranged by his father, Stella applied and was accepted.

He adjusted quickly to a lifestyle at Andover that he described as “a little hazier, a little looser” than it is today. He still remembers the house master of his dorm, who “wrote home to my father that I was a ‘potential bomb-thrower.’”

However, it was at Andover where Stella cultivated an interest in painting that stemmed from his mother, who was an artist, and his father, who worked as a house painter. “The material of paint was easy for me. I could just mess around, I didn’t feel self conscious about it.”

Stella most appreciated the space that Andover gave him to explore painting, and pursued the “Art Major.” He spent his mornings in Art History classes and his afternoons in the studio twice a week. “Everyone was so pressured to get certain grades, so you never took courses that you couldn’t get a decent grade in, and that probably changed my life at Andover. In art they didn’t give you a reign, so I was free to do what I pleased.”

Andover’s art program set the stage for the abstract work he would explore later, said Stella. The curriculum then was based on the theories of Josef Albers and Hans Hofmann, two major influences in modern-day art pedagogy.

“They covered the whole spectrum as far as abstraction was concerned,” said Stella. “Albers was a paragon of geometric abstraction and Hofmann was an insanely gifted teacher and a wildly successful painter. So you had the hard and the soft, you had it all.”

This comprehensive education in abstraction allowed Stella to work through the block of realistic depiction with which many artists struggled at the time. “First you studied art, then you made realistic paintings, then you went to abstraction. It wasn’t that way for me. I was just in it,” he said.

In retrospect, his five-decade-long career seemed to follow a natural path for Stella. “The trend towards abstraction was a demarked historical event,” he said. “I think it has to do with the history of all ideas in the 19th century, and I guess you have to say it had to do then with the 18th century and so on, because each century before affected the next one. All of the ideas blended together at the beginning of the 20th century into modernism.”

What’s next? Stella isn’t sure. “Now in the 21st century it is not very clear what the trajectory of art is going to be and it won’t necessarily follow that line. However it goes, it will be something else.”

“Andover just gives you that slick confidence, and I don’t know if it is merited or not, for making your way through the world,” he said. “I wasn’t that ambitious and I was in the right place at the right time. I was fairly lucky in the beginning. I was really only one of many young artists, many of whom were friends of mine. The older generation of artists were amazingly receptive, I mean, to the whole group of us.”

In spite of his overwhelmingly successful career, Stella still staunchly believes that “the audience for art is the person who makes it.” He said, “It has to go by you first. Then, whatever else happens after that is okay, it is not serious. It may affect your lifestyle or what you have to do, but everyone has to do something.”