Understanding Stella: The Cones and Pillars series

Want to know why Frank Stella borrowed from fairy tales in his quest to break up the surface of his paintings?
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Giufà e La Statua Di Gesso (1984) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book
Giufà e La Statua Di Gesso (1984) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book

In art, the picture plane is the surface of a painting. Some artists like to make the picture plane appear to remain flat, as if all that we can see in a picture lies right up against the ‘window’ of the canvas. Others prefer to break up the plane, giving the illusion of depth.

During the 1980s, the US abstract artist Frank Stella very much fell into the latter camp. “What painting wants more than anything else is working space,” Stella said in a series of lectures he delivered at Harvard in 1983 and ’84, and quoted in our new book.

“Space to grow with and expand into, pictorial space that encourages unlimited orientation and extension. Painting does not want to be confined by boundaries of edge and surface.

 

Lo Sciocco Senza Paura 3.8X (1984) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book
Lo Sciocco Senza Paura 3.8X (1984) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book

"To prove his point further, Stella worked on a series called Cones and Pillars. The name is perhaps a nod to Paul Cezanne’s advice to examine and render the natural world in cylinders, spheres and cones. However, Stella’s series was more explicitly inspired by a nineteenth-century book about building with stone by French architect Louis Monduit.

Yet this isn’t the Cones and Pillars’ whole story. In 1984, Stella met the Italian writer Italo Calvino at Harvard. Calvino was thirteen years his senior, and had gained a reputation for short, fantastical stories that were easy enough to read, but far harder to fully digest.

 

Lo Sciocco Senza Paura 3D–3X (1987) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book
Lo Sciocco Senza Paura 3D–3X (1987) by Frank Stella, from his Cones and Pillars series, as reproduced in our new book

The simple nature of Calvino’s Italian Folktales, a collection of updated vernacular fairy tales the writer collected, updated and first published in 1956, appealed to Stella in particular. He named each of his Cones and Pillars pictures after one of the stories.

The link between these bright, abstract works, which seem to bounce in and out of the picture frame, and stories such as Giufa – a boy so stupid he tried to sell a piece of cloth to a plaster statue – isn’t clear.

Still, Stella insists there’s a link. “They are simple and direct, the way a fairy tale is.” And like a fairy tale, or a Calvino story, they aren’t easily forgotten or explained away afterwards.

 

Frank Stella

For more on these paintings and many others order a copy of our new Frank Stella book, part of our Contemporary Artist series. And you can catch some great Frank Stella work at these exhibitions: New York, NY, Loretta Howard Gallery, Racers: Larry Poons and Frank Stella until February 10. Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern Block Museum of Art, Experiments in Form: Sam Gilliam, Alan Shields and Frank Stella, until June 24, Fort Lauderdale, FL, NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, Frank Stella: Experiment and Change, until July 1, 2018 and Tuttlingen, Germany, Galerie der Stadt Tuttlingen, Frank Stella Prints (title tbd), October 6 – November 25, 2018. Meanwhile, on Friday, February 9 there is ‘An Evening with Frank Stella’ at the University of Houston. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Euphonia there will be a discussion between Frank, Rick Lowe and Alison de Lima Green.


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