With Artist Frank Stella, What You See Is What You See Early in his career, Stella's goal was to not depict anything. In 1958, he notoriously achieved that. Since then, Stella has continued to push the possibilities of his art.
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With Artist Frank Stella, What You See Is What You See

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With Artist Frank Stella, What You See Is What You See

With Artist Frank Stella, What You See Is What You See

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

One of the hottest museum shows of 2015 has been the Frank Stella retrospective, now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Stella has done it all over the course of a six-decade career - brightly colored geometric paintings, three-dimensional reliefs and sculptures. He's one of the most influential and respected artists of the 20th century. And now, nearly 80 years old, he is still pushing the possibilities of his art. Karen Michel visited Stella in his studio and found an artist for whom recognition is a blessing and an annoyance.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Frank Stella does huge work, some of it 20 feet tall and twice as long. So he has a suitably supersized studio about an hour's drive north of New York City.

Hello?

Walking through hundreds of pieces hanging on white walls, placed on the floor and tables strewn with ideas in progress, it's not easy to find the artist.

Hello?

I finally find Stella relaxing on a sort of recliner-meets-lawn chair...

Oh, hello.

...Next to a crowded table with neon-colored sharpies, boxes of matches and an ashtray holding a partly smoked cigar

FRANK STELLA: Yeah, trying to keep to one cigar a day.

MICHEL: The studio is a museum in itself. Stella gets up to lead a quick tour. He still has some of his early austere geometric canvases in the sensuous neon-colored whirls and swoops.

STELLA: This is a piece from 1970. That's a piece, I guess, from the '80s. And this is a very recent piece from about a year ago.

MICHEL: Stella points to one of several freestanding organic forms, a matte black sculpture that looks kind of like the small dried seedpods he has nearby, but not. It's different from anything he's done before.

ADAM WEINBERG: The integrity of being an artist for Frank means going into the unknown.

MICHEL: Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg co-curated the retrospective.

WEINBERG: To me, that is a sign of a great artist. A great artist is somebody who's not scared to reinvent themselves and to start all over again. And some artists do it once, twice, three times in their career. He's done it probably a dozen times or more.

MICHEL: Stella has pretty much always painted, whether helping his gynecologist father paint the house or his mother decorate clamshells at home in Massachusetts.

STELLA: I'm more of a house painter. That's the way I work. I mean, although, you know, these look pretty decorative, so maybe we could put these into clamshells.

MICHEL: Stella started painting seriously in high school. And even then, he was ambitious.

STELLA: I had to find a way to paint abstractly, which is what I wanted to do. And, you know, I couldn't forget Kandinsky and Malevich and Mondrian. I mean, that was the basis. You know, and you couldn't forget Picasso, Matisse and Miro either. And it had to be, you know, at least as good if - or better or whatever.

MICHEL: But Stella didn't want to be like any of them. His goal was not to depict anything, something he notoriously achieved in 1958 with his black paintings. Co-curator Adam Weinberg says they changed everything.

WEINBERG: You know, it's basically one color of paint, you have bits of canvas that are unpainted and you have these thick stretcher bars. So you see that a painting is an object, that it's not a window into something. You're not looking at a landscape, you're not looking at a portrait but you're looking at a painting. It's basically a painting is a painting is a painting. And it's what he said famously, what you see is what you see.

MICHEL: Though, in this case, it took Stella a little time to see it. He had done a painting with red stripes - minimalist, geometric - and wasn't entirely happy. So he painted it over all black before he went to bed. In the morning, he considered what he'd done.

STELLA: It still looked like a mess but it was, as a lot of people would say, an interesting mess because the stripes were then all black. So it wasn't a two-color painting anymore, it was a kind of one-color painting. But the idea was there. I looked at and I said, not so terrible really.

MICHEL: Some are critics thought it was terrible.

STELLA: My father made a very good point about that when he said, you know, there's a lot of difference between being well-known and being notorious. And the black paintings didn't make me well-known. They made me notorious.

JULIE MEHRETU: He's a legend (laughter).

MICHEL: Macarthur Genius grantee Julie Mehretu is just one of the younger artists Stella's influenced.

MEHRETU: Once I really started to understand his work and follow it, there was a certain type of invention and playfulness and extreme rigor with which he kept going forward.

MICHEL: Frank Stella applies that rigor to everything he does, including his series. "Moby Dick" comprises 135 works, one for each chapter of the novel. "Scarlatti," after the composer, is even bigger.

STELLA: The kick with "Scarlatti" was obvious. I mean, Scarlatti started writing sonatas when he was 66. And the idea that he ran off 500 or so after he was 66 was just too much for me to resist. It's just great, you know, I still probably only done about 250.

MICHEL: It's the work that keeps him going, not so much the hoopla of a career retrospective.

STELLA: Well, it's certainly not just another show. But on the other hand, I get cranky really easily so the honor of it and the wonder of it all and everything has a hard time overcoming the petty annoyances. I mean, that's simply the reality of being alive, I guess. I mean, you know, it sounds fatuous, but I'll get over it. I mean, that's my job, right?

MICHEL: To be the best artist Frank Stella can, whether it well-known or notorious. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in the Hudson Valley.

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