Frank Stella’s prints dazzle at MMoCA

Frank Stella’s prints dazzle at MMoCA
‘Extracts’ by Frank Stella at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

“Frank Stella Prints: A Retrospective” at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is staggering. The new exhibition features roughly 100 prints that the world-renowned abstract artist created over a period of more than fifty years. The works are expansive, vibrant and dynamic, and they reveal a fascinating stylistic evolution.

The show opens with the works that are synonymous with Frank Stella, and mirror his most famous paintings, the tidy geometric forms cut through with crisp white lines. Soon, you start to see evidence of Stella experiment with the medium of printmaking, loosening up by working in texture, gestural elements or variations in color.

Yet, at some point these precise, contained forms explode—into fantastical explorations of color, line, gradation, texture, size, even dimensions!

How did this happen? And when and why?

While Stella was in Madison the first weekend of February for the opening of the retrospective, I had the chance to sit down with him to talk about his printmaking. And he pinpointed that turning point.

“I really wasn’t drawn to printmaking,” Stella says. “I mean, I was a little bit dragged into it. I was interested in it but it just took me a while. I was sort of doing it, but it wasn’t until we got into the ‘Circuit’ prints that things opened up for me.”

Stella created his “Circuit” series, inspired by racetracks, in the early 1980s in Los Angeles with master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, who’s credited with turning Stella onto the medium. At MMoCA, Stella points to a work called “Talladega” and explains how that piece transformed his printmaking.

“I found by accident, through working, I saw pieces of plywood, 4×8 pieces of plywood, that had the trace of a router on it, that were dug out,” he says. “And that was because they were drawing the shapes for pieces in the ‘Circuit’ paintings. And so the routing on the plywood was kind of an interesting drawing. That’s drawn by chance. That had nothing to do with me. But the shapes were mine but they were overlaid, and I don’t know that I would have overlaid them that well myself. So, anyway, that was the result.”

The discovery changed how he approached printmaking, and helped him separate the process from his other art making. “The imagery was no longer an image of a painting I’d made,” he says. “It was a new image.”

Ultimately, it freed up his printmaking. “Because there was randomness in these pieces, I began to—I mean I always did, a little bit—allow things to happen more,” he says. “The planning didn’t have to be quite so rigid.”

And rigid these prints are not. Expressive, bold and lively, the work are rich with texture, pattern and color and draw inspiration from everything from exotic birds to metals to Italian folktales.

MMoCA curator Richard Axsom organized this show featuring prints from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation collection. Jordan Schnitzer, the president of a Portland-based real estate property and management company, says this exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to get to know Stella.

“One of the reasons I like retrospective exhibitions is it lets you walk into the mind of an artist,” he says. “You’re walking into the mind of a brilliant human being. It’s a magnificent journey for all of us.”

Another Stella show, “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” is up at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. It features about 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other works.

“Right now, Frank Stella’s retrospective at the Whitney is the most important in the country,” Schnitzer says, adding that MMoCA’s retrospective brings a slice of that scene to Madison.

“Don’t pass up going to this exhibition. Too many eyes will not wear out the art,” he says. “The most important thing about Frank Stella’s work is to just feel it.”

Looking at fifty years of his art on MMoCA’s walls, Stella spoke about the surreal feeling of seeing one’s own retrospective.

“It’s actually sort of abstract, because the real essence that doesn’t get reproduced is how they looked the first time you showed them, after you made the prints and put them up in a room or gallery. It was kind of exciting,” he says. “And now it’s a little bit distanced.”

But for those of us who haven’t seen these incredible works before, it’s just exciting.

“Frank Stella Prints” runs through May 15 and then embarks on a national tour.

A Mix of Media 

Frank Stella may be the big name in the city’s art scene this month, but there are other cool shows to check out.

Also at MMoCA, “William Kentridge: The Heart has its Own Memory” is the latest exhibition to hit the Imprint Gallery for new media.

The dark, intimate gallery screens two films by the South African artist; “Felix in Exile” and “History of the Main Complaint” are the fifth and sixth works in his animated film series called “9 Drawings for Projections.” Both address the shift from apartheid to post-apartheid society—and more specifically race and the human condition—in South Africa.

While the narratives of the works are compelling, Kentridge’s process is equally interesting. He created the films by photographing his charcoal and pastel drawings with 35 mm film. He continuously drew, photographed, altered by erasing and redrawing and re-photographed his symbol-filled and memory-tinged scenes.

The exhibition is up through April 24.

Over at Gallery 1308 at the Union South, “Recent Paintings” by Boris Ostrerov place special emphasis on the artist’s materials.

Ostrerov not only uses oil paint to create abstracted scenes across his canvases; he also piles the pigments tall on the edges of those canvases and molds them into shapes and stacks—turns them into sculpture—on shelves.

In a statement, the Chicago-based artist writes: “Painting is the fundamental drive and subject of my work. These works originated from the pleasure I received from applying paint and mocking or poking fun at serious paintings, serious painters and pretentious aspects of art.” Sometimes using cake-decorating bags and tips, he references decoration, commodity and excretion. “I present a painting language that is extraordinarily honest to the technique and process but yields bizarre results,” he states.

The exhibition runs through March 1.

And at sister Class of 1925 Gallery at the Memorial Union, “Suspicious Suspension” features about ten black and white works by Hesam Fetrati, an Irianian-born artist and satirist now studying art in Australia.

Tightly composed and detailed scenes depicted in black and white are powerful in their storytelling capabilities. The artist states that the three series—”Severed Roots,” “Blindness” and “Suspension”—are his “interpretation of the distress caused through the common and harmful and global activity of displacement.” He writes that “This body of work address contemporary issues of diaspora, hope, despair and the hopelessness associated with the act of displacement.”   

The show is up through March 29.

Pottery is the focus this month at Hatch Art House. Featured through Feb. 29 at the Willy Street gallery is ceramics artist Aly Wheeler, a native of the Driftless region of Wisconsin who draws inspiration from nature to create playful yet functional pottery. Her vases, vessels, bowls and cups range in style from graphically black and white to more subtle blending of hues.

And visitors can take in a variety of media—stained glass mosaics, charcoal drawings, watercolors, prints and ceramics—at the VSA Wisconsin Gallery on the east side. “Transcending Limitations: Art from the Heart” is the latest showcase from the organization that connects people with disabilities with artistic opportunities.

Highlights of the show include a trio of scenes made from brilliant pieces of stained glass by Madison artist Ron Wendt, charcoal figure drawings by Fay Willems of DePere, neat scenes of still-life flowers and outdoor landscapes by Jon Wos of Oshkosh and expressive abstract paintings by Joyce J. Gust of Winneconne.

See the show through March 31.

And this month you can still catch several exhibitions covered last month: the “Art Department Faculty Quadrennial” at the Chazen Museum of Art, “Recollections” and “Meet Allison, an American Girl” at the James Watrous Gallery, “Katherine Wall, OP: Charcoal Portraits and Isabel Rafferty, OP: Animation” at Edgewood College Gallery, “Fresh Perspectives” at the Playhouse Gallery at Overture Center, “Between Two Lakes, Presented Between Two Colors” and “Luck of the Draw” at the Madison Central Library, “The Point of No Return” at Gallery 211 at Madison College and “Moments Impressed” at Gallery Marzen. Find details here.