Cantahar (1998) by Frank Stella. From the artist's Imaginary Places series

Understanding Stella: The Imaginary Places series

Here’s how a 1980s travel guide to Narnia, Middle Earth and Oz led Frank Stella on an abstract voyage of his own

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a book about fantasylands. Written by the Argentinian-Canadian author Alberto Manguel and the Italian historian Gianni Guadalupi, and first published in 1980, the book treats such places as JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, CS Lewis's Narnia, and Frank L Baum’s Oz as if they were tourist destinations, and writes up these fictional territories in the style of a 19th century travel-guide style.

From 1994 until 2004 the US artist Frank Stella produced a series of works themed around Manguel and Guadalupi’s book. However, his Imaginary Places series weren’t simple book illustrations.

Instead Stella’s paintings and prints – like the book – drew up on earlier works. They were abstract, as with most of his work; they were inspired by classic literature, as Stella’s Moby Dick and his Cones and Pillars series were.


Frank Stella
Frank Stella

The works also broke up the picture plane with both the illusion of depth – warped grids, tactile blotches and telescoping forms – and real differences in height, as Stella placed pieces of painted and sprayed canvases alongside bits of metal, and screen-printed elements to create collage-like paintings and prints.

He wasn’t trying to accurately depict any of the places in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, but as with earlier series of works, Stella appeared to appreciate the fantastical elements in Manguel and Guadaluip’s book, and to added depth and intrigue to his chosen medium, as well as a sense space.

Of course, there aren’t any witches or dragons in Stella’s abstract fantasy realms, yet they still push the view to consider what is real and what is perceived; as Andrianna Campbell puts it in our new book “somewhere between the virtual and physical world lies painting’s potential.”


Frank Stella
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.