Artist Frank Stella has given shoppers and passers-by at Boston’s Seaport a reason to take a closer look.
Through a partnership with the Marianne Boesky Gallery, the Seaport commissioned the Massachusetts native to create a 98-foot mural of his 1970 painting “Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation I)” for the exterior of One Seaport. After studying at Phillips Academy Andover and then Princeton University, the painter, sculptor and printmaker made his way to New York where he established himself in minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. Shoppers en route to Warby Parker or drivers whizzing by One Seaport can take in the colorful design that was part of Stella’s “Protractor” series. The name Damascus Gate borrows from the ancient sites of Asia Minor and the mural highlights colorful “interlaces,” “rainbows” and “fans.”
WS Development is among the increasing number of domestic and international developers blending public art with commercial enterprises. Chief operating officer Samantha David appreciates its lure, considering Boston Seaport has introduced 10 art installations to the district. David is the daughter of former majority owner of Barneys New York Richard Perry and his fashion designer wife Lisa Perry.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Stella discussed his latest project, an upcoming exhibition in Europe and art’s everlasting challenges. Sounding nonchalant about his efforts in Boston, the artist said, “They said, ‘Do you want to do it?’ It was their idea. We looked at it, put in a proposal and then they accepted it. It’s not too tricky. You’re given the dimensions basically — how big it is. It was just a question of finding an image that could be enlarged, wouldn’t fall apart and sort of fit the space. So we made a couple of proposals and they chose that one.”
As for the idea of using art in public places and commercial ones as a better way to reach more people or surprise people, Stella said, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure whom is reaching whom. You know sometimes it works and then sometimes it doesn’t work so well. It’s like everything else. Some projects just seem to go easily and fit into the circumstances. And some things are just forced and don’t seem to make much sense,” Stella said. “So this was a very nice project. It went smoothly.”
Returning to the Seaport was “interesting,” since Stella used to buy canvas from a sailmaker there decades ago. He said, “It’s been completely transformed. It was kind of nice the way it was actually in the old days. It wasn’t barren at all. There were wharfs so there were ships and warehouses and activity. The price of canvas hasn’t gone up very much. It’s what the sailmakers use so you buy it by the roll. You could have a 60-inch roll, 96-inch roll or they even had it up to 144 inches. They would roll it out.”
In March, Stella will be off to Stockholm for a one-man show at the Wetterling Gallery that will be on view March 19 through May 2. “March is not the most perfect month there. But anyway — it’s fun,” he said.
The artist’s varying works have been the impetus for many to visit the Museum of Modern Art through the years. Stella has not yet visited the new MoMA, but he plans to get there. “I’ve been to the old MoMA. There’s always a new MoMA. I went to the last MoMA before this. I’ll get there though. I’m not worried. I don’t get around so much any more, as they say. It’s not that easy to move around. But anyway I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Asked which artists intrigue him now, Stella said he sees a lot of artists at the Whitney Museum of American Art and other places. “I’m not so good with names. But I would say the level is really quite high. There is a lot of talent, ability and a lot of things that I like,” he said. “I just have a hard time trying to put down the urge to try to figure out where it’s going to go. I see it and I see it’s plenty interesting. But I don’t have a clear idea of where it’s headed. I don’t know why I need that. But if I knew where it was going, I might be more interested in it — what’s actually being made and is being shown in the city’s galleries and museums.”
From his perspective, the level of talent is always good. “People really know what they are doing. There are a lot of good artists. The attention is usually focused at the top of the pyramid around the museums, sales and things like that — and you know rumors mostly. Nonetheless, there is just a lot going on. Whatever the top of the pyramid may be — the rest is really strong. The top only stands up because the bottom is strong. So there is a lot of ability and a lot of talent out there. And people work really hard at it,” Stella said.
The most challenging part of his career is “paying the bills,” and no, that doesn’t get easier, according to Stella. “I don’t think it gets easier for anybody. Everybody rises to the level of their income.”
His workdays boil down to two aspects — working on the plans or the model making, which requires Stella getting some help with the computer. “In order to build anything, you have to have the geometry. So we work on that. And then there is time in the studio, working on painting and working over what you made. So it’s getting things built, and then I suppose getting them decorated — any way you get them painted,” he said.
There is no on-off switch when it comes to working for Stella. “As far as I’m concerned, I work when I sleep. I don’t count the hours on or off. I guess when you think, or you worry about problems, you just worry. Working is worrying,” he said. At 83, Stella has no need to overthink his longevity. “It’s corny but I think the thing that counts the most is good health. You know there’s no secret. It’s just fate.”
Reluctant to identify any underrated artists, Stella said, “I’m not in the rating business. The art world — or the world — is what it is. I don’t have a plan for improvement.”
The artist said of his younger self, “I was only interested in trying to make good paintings — not interested in a career. I tried to make something that was as good as the artists that I admired like [Willem] de Kooning, [Jackson] Pollock, Barnett Newman, Adolf Gottlieb, [Franz] Kline. Abstract Expressionist painting — I loved that. So it was fun to come to New York and be in the groove.”
Sixty years later he still lives in Manhattan. “What do I like most about the city? Oh, the extensive park areas and how uncrowded it is,” he said sardonically. “The city is the city. People come here. They don’t stop coming. It’s hard to really know why.”