Why Boston needs a major public artwork from native son Frank Stella


What is still surprising, however, is that the seaport’s “Damascus Gate” redux – paid for by a developer, adorning its tower – is the one and only major public art work of Stella by Stella, probably the offspring. most famous artistic scene in the city. (MIT owns one of Stella’s hybrid sculpture-painting pieces, the 12-foot-tall “A coin or a coin”, from 1988, hanging inside in his Tang building; a panoramic Stella painting, “Loohooloo” from 1994, fills the meeting room of the university’s architecture and town planning department.)

A view of Frank Stella’s “Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation I)” in Boston Harbor.Nic Antaya / The Boston Globe

It’s not for lack of ability: Stella began working with computer-aided design software in the 1990s, an unsurprising turn for an artist whose taste for joyful experimentation is the only constant in a career. iconoclastic. He has been doing monumental public sculpture for over a decade. His 2015 work for the courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, “Inflated Star and Wooden Star,” stands over 20 feet tall; “K.304”, a huge perforated vortex of silver aluminum, is found in a field in upstate New York.

And this is surely not for lack of good faith: Stella had his first investigation into his career at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, when he was still in his thirties, then another in 1988. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted his retrospective on his career. – the first major solo exhibition in its glorious new building.

Stella was in town last week for the unveiling of the ‘Damascus Gate’ replica and seemed elated (‘It really works,’ he told me later over the phone, without any feeling. is easy to see, it’s big enough to grab attention. – it’s something to really look at. ”) But the arrival of the work, and Stella’s, also unearths a complicated story, and all so many questions.

His sudden appearance in the new Boston neighborhood, more than six decades after his artistic ambitions drew him to New York, stirs up ghosts and speaks volumes about the ambitions of two cities, both wealthy and deeply invested in their institutions. cultural, going in opposite directions in the middle of the last century. When Stella was a student at Phillips Academy in Andover in the early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism reached its peak in New York City, with the Museum of Modern Art zealously defending its rise. The museum very deliberately helped turn its main actors into superstars – Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still – and positioned itself at the center of a takeover of the burgeoning art world. by a strong team of radical American painters.

In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts largely dodged the whole affair, staking its territory with modern icons like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. Abstraction, he might have thought, was a passing fad – better not to go too deep. In its orbit, smaller institutions were doing the work that the museum probably found unpleasant – most notably, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Phillips, where Stella had been a student. There he absorbed the burgeoning narrative of Abstract Expressionism that was largely absent from key city institutions downtown. “We saw Jackson Pollock there, Franz Kline – everything that was going on in New York. It was very advanced, “he said.

So Stella left for New York – what else could he do? – landing first in Princeton in the mid-1950s, then in the city in 1958. It wasn’t so much of a problem in Boston as it was a problem everywhere – New York had established itself as an art nursery modern decades before, when photographer Alfred Stieglitz began drawing various revolutionary artists into his orbit around his 291 gallery in the early 1900s.

But Boston was unique. It was outrageously rich and full of patrons and collectors who could handle almost anything. The MFA’s reluctance to abstraction came to define the city’s cultural ambitions at a critical time: For Boston’s art-world elite, time seemed to stand still in the beginning. of the 20th century even as 1940s American art blossomed into a dominant force. By the 1950s, Boston was no longer a place for a young artist energized by the burgeoning abstract avant-garde. It was clear.

The full story is more complicated than that, as it always is: The Boston Museum of Modern Art, born in 1936 as MoMA’s younger brother, broke up in the 1940s – a split often used to support Boston’s sluggish assertions. The opposite may have been true, according to Richard Meyer’s 2013 book “What Was Contemporary Art?” He describes the Boston Museum – which became the ICA – as fearing that MoMA has become too narrow and exclusive, defining modern art as a direct line from European modernism to abstract expressionism – a line championed by critic Clement Greenberg, high priest of abstract expressionism.

The Boston Museum was not wrong, it turns out that MoMA is still correcting its record to be broader and more inclusive, embodied in the complete overhaul of its permanent collection galleries, freshly reopened last week after six months of job. But the stories get simpler over time and the reputations stick. The Boston one wasn’t completely won over – Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings, told me there was “an embarrassing lack of interest in abstraction” at the museum for decades, s ‘extending into the 1960s – although that was not uniformly true, as these things never are. (“It’s just not ethical here,” Stella told me, confirming a reputation that still needs to be rehabilitated.)

At Princeton, Stella perfected an austere technique of rigid lines against dark backgrounds. He arrived in New York City just in time to help write the obituary of Abstract Expressionism: MoMA, showing itself to be able to adapt and survive, embraced change and put Stella’s “Black Paintings” in. his 1959 exhibition “16 Americans”. Stella was only 23 years old. He quickly became a leader in the movement called Post-Painter Abstraction, which spelled both the death knell for Abstract Expressionism and a bridge to the seismic shifts in the art world in minimalism and conceptualism. A little over a decade later, Stella would be the youngest artist to have a solo exhibition at MoMA. The rest is history.

History, however, has a way of staying, and in the strangest of ways. “Damascus Gate”, which overlooks the district where the seaport water has just been added, haunts the city’s brand new space with the specter of one of its most spectacular cultural failures. A cure, or at least part of a cure, is staring you straight in the face: a large public sculpture of an American icon and a native son would do a lot to open a regrettable chapter in our history and help make amends. honorable. Frank Stella is 83, Boston, and not getting any younger. Isn’t it time to welcome him home?

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.


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