Frank Stella

Teaching Page

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Frank Stella, Pergusa Three, TP II, from Circuits, 1983. Relief and woodcut on white TLG, handmade, hand-colored paper, 66 x 52 inches. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. © 2016 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This teaching page provides analysis of the work of art, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. A pdf of the teaching page is also available. This work is on view in Frank Stella Prints: A Retrospective through May 22, 2016.

The Art

Swirling, looping ribbons of color bisected and overlaid with straight lines dominate the center of Frank Stella’s Pergusa Three, a print from his Circuits print series of 1983. The title refers to the Autodromo di Pergusa, a three-mile racetrack around Pergusa Lake near the city of Enna in Sicily. The Three in the title indicates that the print is a scaled version of a corresponding Stella painting on metal from 1981, also called Pergusa. The print is not a reproduction of the painting, but rather employs similar colors and shapes.

The style of Pergusa Three is abstract, in that it does not depict a recognizable object or scene, but its lines, colors, shapes, and textures have an external referent in the movement, speed, and asphalt of auto racing cars and tracks. Frank Stella’s approach to abstraction evolved from his minimalist geometric works in the early 1960s to gestural “narrative abstraction,” of which this print is an example, with illusionistic references to forms and shapes of the world. The imageis dominated by its central web of red curves and jutting white wing-like shapes, with pops of green and yellow that seem to zoom around the space. A colorful lace pattern embedded in the curves suggests tire treads and skid marks. In contrast with the curves, sharp edges and bisecting straight lines suggest the precise designs of Formula One cars, which have high rectangular spoilers and are built low to the ground with huge, wide tires. By alternating the straight and curving lines Stella creates tension that adds to the sense of speed and energy suggested by the image’s reference to a racing track. Red is a fitting dominant color, as “racing red,” or rosso corsa  (ross-soh core-sah) is the color historically applied to cars racing for Italy in international races (much like “racing green” was used for British cars). Red is also associated with the famous Italian automaker Ferrari.

The Circuits prints are examples of seriality or serial art, which became prevalent in American art during the twentieth-century and was practiced particularly by Minimalist artists during the 1960s and 70s. During this period, Frank Stella was associated with Minimalism, a style that employed geometric shapes and surfaces to call attention to the materials in the works rather than to emotional expression or overt symbolism. Frank Stella continued to experiment and innovate throughout his career, and Pergusa Three reflects his evolution from his early precise geometry to lively gesture, from his early stark blacks and grays to luminous color, and from titles that referred simply to the object itself to titles that suggest abstract “narratives” of the surrounding world.

Pergusa Three was printed on hand-made paper saturated with splotches of watercolor paint. It combines inlaid metal etching, intaglio and woodblock printing with two separate woodblocks made of beech wood. The woodblocks included magnesium inserts to create areas of different texture—specifically a tablecloth pattern etched onto the magnesium inserts. By combining all of these different approaches Stella created an image with depth and the appearance of multiple layers. The result is an abstract image that vibrates with energy like the energy of auto racing.

The Artist

Frank Stella was born in 1936 in Massachusetts. He attended Princeton University and majored in history. His visits to New York City in the 1950s exposed him to the works of abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock, and later, to the flag and target paintings of Jasper Johns which influenced his choice to move to New York and begin his career in art. In the 1950s and 1960s Stella’s interest in the idea of art as an object rather than as a symbolic representation was reflected in his series of Black Paintings, which were rectangular canvases painted in black stripes with thin lines of unpainted canvas, and his Irregular Polygon series, which was painted on irregularly shaped canvases. Over his long career he continually experimented with printmaking, opening up traditional print media to new possibilities.

Key Ideas

  • Abstract “narration” which alludes to forms and shapes in the real world
  • Seriality as a means to explore an idea or theme using repetitions and variations
  • Continual experimentation leading to new creative directions over the course of an artist’s career

Discussion Questions

1. Stella has said,“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.” How does Pergusa Three convince you that it is real, that it is THERE?

2. Sustained looking at Pergusa Three may create the sense that the shapes begin to move. What is your experience of movement or of pushing into space as you look at the image?

3. Some viewers think that Stella’s prints exude a mood of optimism and confidence. What do you notice that might imply or stimulate this feeling?

4. How is your understanding of this image influenced by knowing that the title Pergusa Three refers to a racetrack? Does the title affect your responses to the image? How?


On the Artist

Frank Stella on Wikipedia

Whitney Museum of Art exhibition

The Museum of Modern Art artist page

The ArtStory artist page

Art Methods

On minimalism and seriality

An introduction to printmaking (video)

New York Times article on Frank Stella: A Retrospective