Frank Stella, to the envy of many, is that rarest of artists: one who has known little of failure. His initial, post-collegiate efforts—the “Black Paintings”—met with almost immediate commercial success and critical acclaim. And since this auspicious start, his stature and influence have only increased over his nearly 50-year career. No serious museum of contemporary art can be without a Stella in its collection, and his works routinely fetch seven figures at auction.
Chapel of the Holy Ghost” (model)
'Constantini Museum' (detail of a model) by Frank Stella; 1999; plastic and wood; photo by Steven Sloman; image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While Stella (b. 1936; Malden, Mass.) is best known as a painter of flat (and, famously, shaped) canvases, he began introducing relief into his work as early as the 1970s—and by the 1990s, sculpture became, and remains, a major part of his output. And as Stella himself puts it, “It’s hard not to think about architecture when you’ve gone from painting to relief to sculpture.”

Indeed, architecture has been a serious focus of his now for nearly 20 years—and his achievements in this area, at least in the eyes of curators at the world’s most prestigious museum, merited a solo exhibition: “Frank Stella: Painting into Architecture,” which recently ran at New York’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art for three months. (A companion show, “Frank Stella on the Roof,” is on view through Oct. 28, 2007.)

Stella’s interest in architecture is unabashedly and unapologetically about form not function, about a structure’s “pictorial” quality. Build a beautiful building, in other words, and a practical purpose can be found for it—and clients will come.

But they haven’t come, at least not yet. In a rare disappointment in his otherwise charmed career, none of Stella’s proposed projects has as yet been built. In this forthright interview, Stella addresses why he thinks this is so; suggests what architects might have to learn from artists; discusses the work (both architectural and artistic) of his former studio mate, Richard Meier; names his favorite architects (living and dead); talks about how to make “exalted architecture”; jokes about the “unseemly cattiness” of architects; and hints that Daniel Liebeskind might have borrowed a little too liberally from his “Polish Village” series of artwork.

The interview also includes audio and video clips of the interview; and eight very brief video “tours” of some of the work on view at the two exhibitions.

Bryant Rousseau: Frank, we’re sitting here on the roof of the Met surrounded by some extremely large examples of your work. Two of them are (0:29); one of them, (0:15), seems to straddle the line between sculpture and architecture. How do you define where sculpture ends and architecture begins? Is it as simple as assigning a practical purpose to a large piece of sculpture?

Frank Stella: Yes. Everybody uses plumbing as the definition. If it has plumbing, then it’s architecture. And this piece that’s here [gestures toward the “Chinese Pavilion”] is expressed downstairs in the exhibition in a model called the “Guest House.” And that has furniture, it has a bathroom, it has everything. It is a livable space; I wouldn’t say how livable, but nonetheless it is. And “Guest House” was deliberately chosen as an idea of some place you might live in for a while—it’s hardly designed to be a permanent residence.

BR: A “habitable illusion” you’ve said before about some of your proposed work…

FS: Yes, that’s what the “Guest House” is. And I think the best example of [a habitable illusion] is [the InterActive Corp.’s new Manhattan headquarters] using the frets on the glass wall to introduce pictoriality, pictorial architecture. It’s a horrible phrase, but the building really does it. He really has created a wonderful, illusionistic effect. So I feel quite proud, even though I didn’t do it, the idea got across. The idea lives. And I think it’s a perfectly good idea. And I don’t think it’s new just now. Certainly you would say the excessively sculptural works of say Le Corbusier, like —those are pretty pictorial and sculptural pieces. And you could go as far as I’m concerned with Philip [Johnson]’s or Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. Those are quite pictorial, too.

BR: And speaking of pictorial thought, what can someone who has been a successful artist for decades bring to the world of architecture? What can architects learn from you, and from other artists, about better ways to practice their own craft?

FS: Well, they certainly don’t want to learn from me, but [architects can take from art] the notion that you can use the basic illusionistic effects and really slightly more subtle sculptural effects. You can see it in [Santiago] Calatrava, who is a kind of genius. You can see it in Frank [Gehry]’s work. You can see it in Richard [Meier]’s work, where the fenestration and the light are truly pictorial.

BR: And the corollary to that? Is there anything artists can learn from some of the better practicing architects today?

FS: It’s a bit tricky, but I would say certainly artists learn a lot and have a lot to learn from the architect-engineers. I mean who can’t learn from [Pier Luigi] Nervi or Calatrava? They certainly have a lot to say to basically what amounts to artistic expression. If you don’t try to separate it out too much, [both art and architecture] are an enterprise about fine art; they’re pretty closely related.

BR: What about the creative pleasures and satisfaction of art versus architecture? For you, are they substantially different or are they similar?

FS: I think it’s the same. The problem is it’s so hard to get to what one might call a level of satisfaction. It’s just problems, problems, problems. For me, it’s always a problem. Almost every idea you have is a problem. It’s a problem for painting, it’s a problem for sculpture, and, maybe you’re right, it’s probably even a worse problem for architecture [laughs].

BR: Are the problems and challenges then substantially different? Why can architecture be harder than art? Or is it easier than art for you?

FS: It’s hard to say. At some level, designing is easy for me, even if you could say I don’t live by it. And certainly with architecture, the big thing in my case—since I’m coming at it from the outside—is I was very influenced by the short time that I had with Peter Rice who was an engineer with Ove Arup.

And Peter said the problem with engineering and architecture in the end is that it lacks touch. But more than the touch, it’s the units. In the end, units work, and it’s a great way to build, and it’s very satisfying, but it has a numbing quality. And one [way] you could characterize my architectural efforts certainly, or the models, is there are no units. And believe me, that doesn’t make it easier [laughs]. It’s trying to generate function with form. The form is everything.

BR: I know that Peter Rice had a strong influence on you. But it’s fascinating that you shared a studio with Richard Meier in the late 1950s. Certainly on the surface, your aesthetic sensibilities are very different. Do you think there are any similarities? What at that time in your lives did you teach to each other? And is there still a back and forth between the two of you in terms of your artistic practices?

FS: The world is so into categories that nobody wants to say, “Oh, he paints and he makes architecture.” But Le Corbusier did both, and he was pretty good at them. And Richard was quite gifted as a painter; he has a pretty good touch. So the paintings he made in my studio I thought were pretty nice. They were of the time and of the style, but nonetheless they were really OK. He made some sculpture, some of which I liked a lot, too.