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November 5, 2016February 26, 2017

Frank Stella: A Retrospective

Herbst Exhibition Galleries

For almost six decades Frank Stella has been one of the most important and influential figures in the evolution of modern art, expanding the definitions of art and challenging its conventions. Exploring pictorial space—how paintings can seem to expand or contract, lie completely flat or envelop the viewer, suggest movement or foster stillness—has led to some of Stella’s most significant innovations. In its examination of his work, this exhibition considers Stella’s long-standing interest in the picture plane, presenting early paintings that reference the spaces where he lived and worked; his groundbreaking use of color, shape, and volume to map new possibilities for abstraction; and finally his use of advanced technology to evoke new conceptions of space.

Frank Stella Audio Tour & App

The Frank Stella: A Retrospective audio tour is available as a part of the de Young app, and allows you to use your own device to explore the exhibition. Hear directly from Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator-in-Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and others, as they tell the stories behind the work of an artist who has challenged and expanded the definitions of painting and sculpture.

Purchase the audio tour for $5.99 as an in-app purchase with your iTunes account. To download, tap "Self-Guided Tours" within the de Young app, select " Frank Stella: A Retrospective," and tap "Start."

Currently available on iOS only. Android coming soon.

Having trouble using the app? Contact for questions and feedback.

In Depth

Frank Stella, "Marrakech," 1964. Fluorescent alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 in (195.6 x 195.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert C. Scull, 1971, 1971.5. © 2016 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


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.

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"I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can."

From Our Blog


Visitors to Gallery 14 at the de Young immediately encounter the riot of geometric color that is


This exhibition is organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Presenting Sponsor: Diane B. Wilsey. Curator’s Circle: Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund, The Herbst Foundation Inc. Patron’s Circle: Janet Barnes and Thomas W. Weisel Family, and Frances F. Bowes. Additional support is provided by Lorna Meyer Calas and Dennis Calas, Richard and Peggy Greenfield, Dr. Giselle Parry-Farris and Mr. Ray K. Farris, and Dorothy Saxe. Presenting Events Sponsor: Max Mara. Lead Event Sponsors: Dominique Le̒vy, Marianne Boesky Gallery.

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