Iam not sure artist Frank Stella would ever think of himself as an Italian American: His grandparents emigrated from Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, and he grew up in a suburb of Boston, never learning to speak Italian himself.
And there is more than a memory of immigrants’ pragmatism in Stella’s most celebrated maxim, “What you see is what you see.” With the right accent, wouldn’t that sentence sound perfect not only as one of the principles of minimal art and an antidote to the over-romantic sentimentality of 1950s abstract expressionism, but, more prosaically, also as the kind of thing Tony Soprano would say at the bar or at his shrink’s office?
Stella’s mother was an art student, and perhaps it’s from her that he inherited an interest in art history. But it is from his Sicilian father that he learned about painting, not as a style or a matter of taste or artistic accomplishment, but rather as labor and sweat. Stella’s father was a doctor who put himself through med school by working various jobs, particularly painting and fixing houses. And Stella has said he remembers working with his father on houses, learning about paint and stains, about brushes and sanding. Stella himself worked as a house painter while trying to make some money early in his career.
When it came to his own painting, he has approached making art with the same care and precision as painting houses, laying his stripes of black enamel with the pride of a job well done. His works expunge any sentimentality in favor of both rigor and boredom — beauty as a state of trembling stillness.
Stella would title one of his early masterpieces “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor.” Unfortunately, sometimes I find myself thinking that is in some perverse way a perfect description of Italy at its craziest, as Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” captured it on film.