The best art exhibition you’re likely to see all season is running now at NSU Art Museum.
“Frank Stella: Experiment and Change” (running through July 8) sprawls across the entire first and second floors of the downtown Fort Lauderdale museum, a “King Tut” level commitment. This is exactly the space necessary to present an artist who works in a scale as gargantuan as Stella. With an oeuvre spanning 60 years—from minimalism to maximalism, geometric rigor to shapeless miasmas, painting to sculpture—the museum’s ambitious retrospective reveals an artist brushing against decades of boundaries and obliterating them. Given that some of the exhibition’s grandest, most stupefying creations were completed over the past year, it’s fair to say the 81-year-old trailblazer’s career is far from over.
Curated by Bonnie Clearwater, “Experiment and Change” feigns at chronological organization, with visitors starting roughly, downstairs, at Stella’s striking but derivative 1958 painting “Perfect Day for Banana Fish” and finishing upstairs with his uncontainable 2017 wall-sprouting sculptures. But it freely deviates from chronology when appropriate, artfully wandering in order to “create a dialogue back and forth across time.” Clearwater worked with Stella in such a way that, as the wall text puts it, “he can now see the inevitability of the choices he made.”
As a Stella neophyte who had never seen him exhibited in a museum, and had only heard his name associated with more familiar Pop and expressionist artists—Warhol, Rauschenberg, Rothko—it was inspiring to learn so much about his complicated career trajectory and his insightful world view on the expansive possibilities of expressionism. There is an inordinate amount of wall text guiding spectators through all of Stella’s major series (Black Paintings, Irregular Polygons, Moby Dick, etc.), all of it worth reading. But there’s nothing more edifying than just gazing at these paintings for minutes on end, immersing yourself in his grandiose concoctions and trying to understand his mad genius.
One way to comprehend his career arc is one from literal darkness to light. His Black paintings represent his purest, flattest, clearest example of combative masculine expressionism, revealed here in works like “Criss Cross,” derided in a 2006 New York Times review as “a first, clumsy try.” It looks stronger in this context—a shiny, pitiless black void broken by flecks of white. It still won’t be many audiences’ cup of chamomile.
As early as “Grape Island,” however, Stella began to impishly disrupt the clarity of his own canvases. That flaglike painting, with its yellow bands on a maroon canvas, features a black rectangle covering one part—a redaction, but of what? Traditional color field expressionism? His negation of norms soon extended to the shape of his canvases themselves. “Valparaiso Flesh and Green” merges two triangles to form a slanted square, suggesting motion; it could easily have been adopted by an airline as its logo during the Golden Age of advertising.
“Sunapee I” and “Sunapee II” further confront establishment geometry. These “Irregular Polygons” are bumptious chimeras mashed together like something out Dr. Moreau’s island, their clashing colors meticulously chosen to soothe or confront, comfort or challenge. In my favorite geometric hybrid, “Moultonboro II,” a triangle juts into a square, puncturing it like a tomahawk. In the fascinating “Bafq,” from Stella’s “Persian” series, stripes of orange, green and purple change directions, like shifting lanes on a highway, before “correcting” themselves aright.
“Basra Gate,” with its three layers of color in the half-moon shape of a blackjack table, finds the artist experimenting with dimensionality and perspective, blurring our vision the more we stare at it, creating a hallucinogenic 3D effect. This is amplified by this exhibition’s pair of gargantuan centerpieces, “Deauville” and “Agua Caliente,” 45-foot-long canvases in the curved, horizontal shape of the racetracks that give them their names. Our eyes fail to grasp their enormity all at once, traveling their majestic lengths like thoroughbreds. These arguably were Stella’s first paintings to “liberate viewers to choose their own paths,” in the words of the wall text.
The 3D deceptions of these distortive masterpieces set the stage for the full-on three-dimensionality of wall reliefs like “Cetology,” from his mammoth Moby Dick series. Enigmatically painted metal juts in flailing directions, and it’s only vaguely nautical. Like most of the names of his work, the historical-literary connections are esoteric—perhaps Stella’s admiration of Melville is that of one maximalist to another. (My favorite quote, overheard from a museum visitor admiring these works: “He had a lot of free time, this guy!”)
In the more recent Aughts, Stella’s so-called “pictorial sculptures” take the artist’s bold vision to still new heights, from the futuristic, painted metal “roller coaster” of “Leeuwarden II,” or “Big Flea Drum,” a bent steel wire assemblage punctuated by bursts of black-and-white flowers. I was flummoxed by 2017’s “Atalanta and Hippomenes,” in which painted fiberglass mushrooms sprout like kudzu from metal shelving, as if fungi had begun to grow on a more traditional wall sculpture.
You may be taken with completely different selections. “Experiment and Change” compiles more than 90 pieces, which would be a lot even if the works were small in scale. It’s an ever more impressive achievement given the size and cost of these hulking works. The Museum should be proud of this landmark show—as should anyone with even a passing interest in the woolly evolution of expressionist art.
“Frank Stella: Experiment and Change” runs through July 8 at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 954/525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.