Constant Motion: The Print Career of Frank Stella

Book Review

  • Frank Stella Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné

  • By Richard H. Axsom with Leah Kolb
  • 432 pages, 405 illustrations
  • Published by Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation in association with the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Madison, WI, 2016
  • $75

Frank Stella, one of the most brilliant printmakers of our time, stopped making prints in 2001. It was in that year that Kenneth Tyler, the master printer with whom Stella made his first print series at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles in 1967, closed Tyler Graphics Ltd., the technically inventive print workshop he established in New York state in 1974. Together they had created almost 300 graphic editions, from the cerebral lithographs of the Black Series (1967) to the prints of the visually and physically rollicking Imaginary Places Series (1994–1999), which variously combined lithography, etching, aquatint, relief, engraving, screenprint, woodcut, mezzotint, embossing and more on handmade paper, and made extensive use of computer-aided design. Although Stella also produced important prints working with Petersburg Press (London and New York) and Waddington Graphics (London), it was primarily those made in collaboration with Tyler during the last 20 years of the 20th century that carried the processes of printmaking to the threshold of 21st-century printmaking’s digital age. The full scope of Stella’s achievement—and his no-less-than-thrilling journey from reluctant and conventional to passionate and groundbreaking printmaker—is presented in Frank Stella Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, prepared by Richard H. Axsom of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

This book is an updated and much revised version of Axsom’s The Prints of Frank Stella: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1967–1982 and is yet another major contribution to the chronicling of contemporary graphic work published by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation of Portland, Oregon. The new volume is appropriately regal, with expansive, cleanly designed pages, a clear, sensible format and plentiful color reproductions. Axsom’s introductory essay, “Perpetual Invention,” highlights the myriad transitions that occurred over the course of Stella’s printmaking career. In the catalogue raisonné section of the volume, each series (Stella habitually works in series) is introduced with a full-page detail of one work, followed by a brief, informative commentary that calls attention to, and sometimes illustrates, related paintings, reliefs or sculptures. Thumbnails of all the prints in the series are then presented (a useful addition), followed by a large image of each work accompanied by its technical information.1 This tome will obviously be invaluable to those with a serious interest in Stella and his artistic output, but it should also be recognized as indispensible to anyone seeking to understand contemporary art, abstraction, printmaking in the 20th and 21st centuries and the nature of creative genius.

Frank Stella, Getty Tomb (1967) from Black Series I, as displayed in album, with three other binders from the album project, lithograph, 15 x 22 inches. Edition of 100. Printed by Kenneth Tyler. Published by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles.

Unlike Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and other artists of his generation who spearheaded the American print renaissance in the early 1960s, Stella was initially a relatively uninspired printmaker. While his idea of producing small-scale graphic works that would be gathered together into albums was soon abandoned, from his first portfolio print of 1964 (Untitled [Rabat]), to prints made after the Brazilian Series reliefs and Protractor Series paintings extending into the early 1980s, his prints reiterated the structures of his paintings. Through the course of the 1970s, his graphic works grew in scale and became more adventurous, combining lithography and screenprinting, and exploiting textural effects through printing as well as through hand-painting and collage. However, it was not until he saw Axsom’s early-’80s print catalogue raisonné and the accompanying travelling retrospective looming on the horizon that Stella fully channeled his energies into the medium and, as Tyler has said, “blasted a hole in traditional tools and aesthetics of printmaking.”2

The three print series Stella created at that time were Circuits (1982–84) and Swan Engravings (1982–85), made with Tyler Graphics Ltd., and Shards (1982), his last project with Petersburg Press. Although related to the concurrent Circuit Series metal reliefs in materials and imagery, they were independent entities, each series embracing its own stylistic issues, spatial dynamics and art historical referents. It was in the distinctly cubist Swan Engravings that Stella began to employ a process he was to use and expand upon in subsequent work, which was to assemble studio detritus—laser-cut etched metal fragments left over from the production of his reliefs—on a single board to create a printing matrix. The collaged plate would then be inked and wiped selectively to produce variations in tone or color and printed both for intaglio and relief. The substrate for these and the majority of Stella’s subsequent prints were thick, heavily textured handmade papers produced in Tyler’s in-house papermaking facility.

In his printmaking over the course of what was to be almost the next 20 years, Stella was continually, as Axsom wrote, “upping the ante,” as he kept “adding to his arsenal of techniques.”3 In moving from one series to the next, Stella did not expand merely his range of print media and techniques, but also his repertoire of stylistic motifs and illusionistic devices as well as his frames of reference with regard to content. Making their appearance in Stella’s Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya (1984), produced with Waddington Graphics, for example, were images of cones and pillars, striated so as to be perceived as fully dimensional volumetric shapes, which were designed with the aid of a computer. In some of the prints of the series, these illusionistic shapes, as well as that of a wave-like form that also had its source in a computer program, extended beyond the edges of the support and seemingly into the viewer’s space. It was also in the Had Gadya prints that what Axsom referred to as “narrative abstraction” began to play a significant role in Stella’s art. The series was inspired by Russian Constructivist El Lissitzsky’s early figurative illustrations for a song sung at the Jewish Passover Seder that refers repeatedly to a goat, cat, dog, water, fire, the Angel of Death and more. While the extent to which Stella’s shapes can be tied to objects is open to debate, he was not giving representation to things of the world, but alluding to them and their actions through the dynamic interaction of abstract forms in deep space. (In the four series of prints related to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick made with Tyler that followed, the forms of waves, whales, other undersea creatures and parts of ships are more overtly evoked, while certain techniques, like the marbling seen in The Waves Series [1989], suggest watery worlds.)

Frank Stella, Schwarze Weisheit #1 (2000), aquatint and lithograph on white TGL handmade paper, 37 1/4 x 28 inches. Edition of 19. Published by Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY.

In his reliefs and freestanding sculptures, Stella wrestled with the physical and spatial dynamics of the picture plane in actual space. In his prints, he exploited a host of illusionistic devices and imagery that conveyed multitudinous and often conflicting perceptions of materiality and depth to excavate and violate the surfaces of his paper supports. His use of aggressive colors and boldly patterned forms contributed to the sense of increasing frenzy. As Axsom wrote of the Imaginary Places Series (1994–1999), “The collision of dynamic and brilliantly colored forms . . . nearly chokes the sheet in a profusion of shapes in constant motion . . . The eye cannot begin to register at once all of the spatial actions and ambiguous assertions of form.”4 Juam (1997), the most technically ambitious and largest work from this series (it measured 79 1/2 x 61 1/2 inches), was printed on two vertically disposed, overlapping sheets of handmade, hand-colored paper. The edition was printed from 40 aluminum plates and 9 screens as well as from 102 assembled irregularly shaped elements of aluminum, copper, magnesium, brass and poured bronze that were pressed into a woodblock base plate. As had been the case with Stella’s prints for some years, its composition had been derived from a multilayered paper collage that consisted, among a host of other elements, of rejected and partially printed proofs from earlier print series (studio detritus) as well as of multiple CAD (computer-assisted design) images. Among the latter were an enlarged Ben-Day dot pattern that tended to assert the flatness of the picture plane, and assertively three-dimensional renderings (derived from photographs) of the forms and paths of smoke rings Stella blew while smoking a cigar. Further compounding the spatial play and his “torturing” of print surfaces was the fact that the print matrices embossed, debossed and often literally molded the paper, so that the prints themselves were, Axsom notes, “startlingly tactile and dimensional.”5

While vibrant in color and form, the catalogue reproductions are uniformly flat and slick and do nothing to convey the prints’ material and physical presence, so it is unfortunate that the accompanying exhibition will have such a meager travel schedule. Stella’s first print retrospective went to 15 venues, most of them major institutions; the current show opened in February 2016 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Wisconsin and, after a year’s hiatus, will travel to the Addison Gallery of Art in Andover, Massachusetts, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama.6 This lack of support is no doubt due to the print show’s being upstaged by the major traveling exhibition, “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in October 2015.7

Axsom wrote in the new catalogue that Stella’s prints “are forever entangled with the pictorial ideas and materiality of the paintings, metal reliefs and sculptures” and that to isolate the prints “from his work in other media shortchanges the fullness of his practice and identity as an artist.”8 Although to this end the Whitney retrospective included seven prints, among them the monumentally scaled (91 x 275 3/4 inch) mixed-media work, The Fountain (1992), the fact remains that while Stella continues to produce reliefs and sculptures, his preoccupation with printmaking came to an end when Tyler closed up shop.

Frank Stella, Juam (1997), relief, etching, aquatint, lithograph, screenprint, woodcut and engraving on white TGL handmade, hand-colored paper, two sheets (irregularly shaped and overlapping), 79 1/2 x 61 1/2 inches overall, top sheet 43 1/2 x 61 inches, lower sheet 49 x 61 1/2 inches. Edition of 40. Published by Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY.

The shuttering of Tyler Graphics coincided with the increasing prevalence of digital tools within all types of print processes—software for generating, manipulating and cleaning up images; printers for proofing and generating elements, if not whole images.9 While computer-generated images played an important role in Stella’s art from the mid-80s and while the artist used computer printouts in various architecturally scaled projects, such as his interior design project for the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in 1993, Stella’s mixed media prints, for all their technical extravagance, remained rooted in traditional print technologies. With their heavily textured, multidimensional surfaces, they are profoundly physical entities produced through costly, time-and labor-intensive processes with the involvement of master printers.

Stella’s final collaboration with Tyler was the Schwarze Weisheit Series (2000), titled after one of the artist’s favorite cigars. It translates from the German as “Black Wisdom,” a nod to the Black Paintings (1959–60) and Black Series prints (1967) that initiated his career in painting and printmaking respectively. The Schwarze Weisheit prints look back to those early works in use of black and white, simple processes (lithography or lithography and aquatint) and focus on a single image, in this case a smoke ring. As the forms in Stella’s farewell to printmaking twist and curl in space, they seem to conjure a human face, a self-portrait.10 The artist leaves us in a breath of smoke.

The one criticism that can be directed at this new catalogue raisonné is that, like Stella’s prints, it leaves the reader wanting more. Axsom performed a herculean feat in compiling the contained information, but a companion volume is needed to explore the art historical references—Western and non-Western—of this most knowledgeable of artists and to consider his complex iconographies and literary references. Stella may have concluded his involvement with printmaking (whether for good or for now), but for the rest of us, the work has barely begun. It will be decades before the extent of his achievement in printmaking is fully understood.

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  1. Axsom’s 2016 print catalogue raisonné is to have an online component, not available at the time of this writing, hosted by the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, that will chronicle and offer even more detailed descriptions of the technical complexities and printing sequences of the prints, particularly those executed since the early 1980s. []
  2. Richard H.  Axsom, The Prints of Frank Stella 1967–1982: A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1983), 35. For my analysis of this milestone, see Roni Feinstein, “Frank Stella Prints, 1967–1982, Arts 57, no. 7 (March 1983): 112–115, http://www.ronifeinstein.com/book/frank-stella-prints-whitney/. []
  3. Richard H. Axsom, Frank Stella Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné (Portland: Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation, 2016), 29. []
  4. Ibid., 31. []
  5. Ibid., 366. []
  6. The exhibition will be at the Addison Gallery of Stella’s alma mater, Phillips Academy Andover, 22 April 22 – 30 July 2017, and at Montgomery 19 August – 31 October 2017. []
  7. Exhibition organized by Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in association with Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. []
  8. Axsom, Frank Stella Prints, 36. []
  9. This transition can be seen in Christophe Cherix, Kim Conaty and Sarah Suzuki, Print/Out: 20 Years in Print (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2012). []
  10. The configuration suggests an abstracted representation of a human head, the target to the left and loop beside it serving as an eye and ear, the oval shape below as a mouth. The image calls to mind El Lissitzky’s photomontage Self-Portrait (The Constructor) of 1924, while looking ahead to Thomas Ruff’s Photogram Series of 2012, produced using 3-D software. The Schwarze Weisheit Series would therefore seem to acknowledge Stella’s artistic heritage while pointing toward his artistic legacy. []