Artist Review: Frank Stella, “Eskimo Curlew” (1976)

“I like real art. It’s difficult to define ‘real’ but it is the best word for describing what I like to get out of art and what the best art has. It has the ability to convince you that it’s present – that it’s there. You could say it’s authentic… but real is actually a better word, broad as it may be.” — Frank Stella

Frank Stella was born in Malden, MA in 1936 and attended high school at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA.  He went on to study history at Princeton University, then moved to New York in 1958, where he could focus on his work as an artist.  He is a painter, sculptor, and printmaker, whose work has been featured in various exhibitions in the United States and Worldwide, including those held at Haunch of Venison in London, England; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY; Gagosian Gallery in New York, NY; The Phillips Collection and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Guggenheim in New York and Online; and Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. He has also received numerous awards including a National Medal of Arts presented by President Obama and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center.

Before Stella turned 25, he had gained notoriety for his series of Black Paintings, consisting of precise parallel black stripes, produced by smoothly applied house paint. The striped pattern, in Stella’s words, forced “illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate.”  In other words, it emphasized the flatness of the canvas, rather than giving in to the notion that paintings had to recreate the illusion of being three-dimensional.  Stella’s paintings celebrated the two-dimensionality of the canvas. His work was a catalyst for the Minimalist art of the 1960s.

During the 1970s, Stella introduced relief into his art, which he called “maximalist” painting for its sculptural qualities.  He completely shifted focus from eliminating depth to extending the depth of his work outward from the canvas.  He introduced wood, aluminum, and other mixed media to his ever more elaborate and exuberant pieces.  By the 1990s, Stella began making freestanding sculptures, and then in 2001, he introduced a monumental sculpture outside the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

“Eskimo Curlew” (1976) is an introductory piece of his Exotic Birds series (1976-1981).  The series was Stella’s first experimentation with his complete deviation from a recognizable system or order to his work. Influenced by Abstract Expressionism, he utilized curves and linear forms derived from draftsman’s tools. The Eskimo Curlew is solidly anchored within the rectangle, which contrasts with the exuberant handling of paint and glittery crushed glass on the sweeping, curving surfaces of the aluminum.

The piece was acquired by the Portland Art Museum and now sits in their Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art.  It is quite massive, sitting 98 3/4 in H x 127 in W x 18 in D and takes up most of the wall space in its new home.  Upon entering the 2nd Floor room, where the piece is located, you are drawn into the work by its expansive French Curves and spontaneous etchings in the aluminum.  Unlike Stella’s earlier work, “Eskimo Curlew” has a strong sense of freedom.  Counter to his Minimalism influence, the mood of this work is much more joyful and confident.  It gives the viewer a reason to stand in awe for nearly 20-minutes or more, pondering the inner workings of the piece, whereas Minimalist pieces tell no story and ask nothing more of a viewer than a quick glance as a passerby on the way to something more interesting, more real.

Sites Referenced