Frank Stella: The Artist as Architect

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Constantini Museum (Model), 1999 — Photo: Steven Sloman
; Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society

I finally caught up last week with the pair of Frank Stella shows at the Metropolitan Museum. The larger of the two, Painting Into Architecture, is closing July 29. I think I put it on the back burner partly because of a mostly negative review from Roberta Smith in the New York Times, a review that I now think missed the point, at least of the architectural work. (The smaller show of Stella sculpture on the roof of the Met is another matter.)

Though Stella has qualified for decades as one of the best known American painters, not many people are aware that he’s also had a serious interest for many years in architecture. He’s made a number of architectural proposals, mostly on commission, all of them so far unbuilt. The Met show consists largely of models and large scale mock ups of those designs.

It was Santiago Calatrava who said “a building is a sculpture you walk into.” Which is why the artist-architect was a combination that used to be taken for granted. Michelangelo, Sansovino and Bernini are the obvious examples. By the 19th century the gradual professionalization of architecture had pretty much pushed artists out of the field, though you can still find the occasional architect like Calatrava who also makes (inert, prosaic) sculpture. Hey, Sansovino, a good architect, was a mediocre sculptor, too.

Maybe the closest we come now to the artist-architect is Frank Gehry, who likes to think of himself as a kind of sculptor. (Even if Richard Serra has said publicly that it’s presumptuous of Gehry to think of himself that way.) But it turns out that Stella has been designing structures for almost 20 years. In the late 1990s he produced a really interesting scheme for a gallery and park in Buenos Aires. (That’s the one pictured up top.) And his scheme for a series of pavilions along curving paths, an unbuilt commission for a culture park in Dresden….

First Model, Kunsthalle Dresden, 1991 — Photo: Steven Sloman
; Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society

……served as inspiration for “Da Monsta”, the visitor center that Philip Johnson designed for the grounds of his Glass House.

Da Monsta, Philip Johnson — Photo: Paul Warchol

Gehry also once asked Stella to design a gatehouse for the Peter Lewis estate outside Cleveland that Gehry worked on for years, though none of it was ever built.

Gate House (Model), 1994 — Photo: Steven Sloman
; Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society

In her review in the Times, Roberta Smith objected that Stella’s looping, contorted models didn’t appear to be inhabitable. “First of all because there is not much to walk on.”

Point taken. That’s true, for instance, of his proposal for a guest house that looks like a sculpture by Tony Smith. (Who, of course, started out as an architect, so Stella could be said to be bringing Smith’s architectonic sculpture back to its point of origin.)

Guest House (model), 2007 — Photo: Steven Sloman
; Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society

But Stella’s models are works in progress, meant to propose a rethinking of space that can then be worked up into a buildable form — a common practice among architects looking for new points of departure. (And Stella was working for years with an engineer from Ove Arup, the well known engineering firm, to arrive at buildable versions of his ideas.) The important thing, I think, is that he was putting out there new ways of thinking about architectural space, and space is something artists work with in the most radical ways. (Though granted, in this era of rapid and radical rethinking about architcture, not all of Stella’s ideas look that new. His proposal for a curving metal bandshell that’s currently under construction in Cherbourg, France bears more than a passing resemblance to the bandshell Gehry designed for Millenium Park in Chicago. Which design came first I don’t know.)

In the small catalogue to this show, Paul Goldberger locates Stella’s intentions in just the right way when he says this. “What Stella really wants, I suspect, is to have the artist be a kind of agent provocateur, stimulating archictects to rise above the mundane.” Precisely because architects like Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and so on have moved so far from the orthogonal box, and because computer assisted design can do so much to make unlikely designs a buildable reality, now is a perfect time for artists to get back seriously into architecture.

I’ll let Stella have the last word, from a talk he gave at the Architectural League of New York in 1994: “I think that many gestures artists make, gestures that seem casual and improbable but surprisingly effective in making art, can be made available to architecture.”

Bernini could not have put it better.