Painted with colors that Stella described as referencing taxicabs and asphalt, and featuring a vertical rectangle that might suggest a door or a window, East Broadway (1958) feels grounded in the physical space of lower Manhattan, where he lived at the time.
Six years later, when he painted Marrakech (1964), Stella’s work had shifted to pure abstraction. The painting appears to bend inward, manipulating a space that exists only in the imagination.
With Die Fahne Hoch! (1959) and the other Black series paintings, Stella found a way to push space out of the canvas altogether. Abandoning the traditional concept of a painting as a “window” into another realm, he described these works as simply “a flat surface with paint on it.”
Though the Black paintings made him famous, Stella was restless to continue innovating. The two-part structure of Jasper's Dilemma (1962) combines the monochromatic palette of his early works with the vivid colors that defined his subsequent paintings.
Breaking free from the traditional square or rectangular painting format, the shaped canvas of Creede II (1961) allowed Stella to introduce geometric forms that might be seen as symbols for a new language of painting.
Chocorua IV (1966) further explored the possibilities of the flat plane, even inviting the question of where the painting begins and ends: Is it possible that the composition incorporates the walls of the surrounding gallery?
Moving from two dimensions into three, Stella began to explore the full potential of volume. Inspired by the structures and patterns of Polish wooden synagogues, the high-relief construction Bechhofen (1972) organizes and encloses space in a way that recalls architecture.
Gobba, zoppa e collotorto (1985), with its tumbling columns and cones, occupies even more volume, extending nearly three feet from the wall. Always interested in architecture and engineering, Stella’s increasingly elaborate constructions reinvigorated the medium of painting.
An enthusiastic cigar smoker, Stella was inspired to create his series of untitled smoke ring photographs (late 1980s) after noting that the shape of a smoke ring is both complex and in constant flux over time. K.81 (2009), inspired by 18th-century harpsichord sonatas, evokes another ephemeral space: the one occupied—and seemingly shaped—by music.
In his work today Stella continues to embrace the possibilities of computer-aided design, 3-D printing, and other digital tools—a master of traditional painting working with innovative technology to explore the endless potential of new forms, materials, and techniques.