Frank Stella

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY MAS­SI­M­IL­IANO GIONI Twit­ter: @new­mu­seum Mas­si­m­il­iano Gioni is artis­tic di­rec­tor of the New Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in New York.

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.

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