American Abstract Artist Frank Stella Dies at 87

The trailblazing artist, who died on May 4, repeatedly redefined abstraction—from minimalist pinstripes to maximalist arcs.

May 5, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
The artist Frank Stella photographed by Christopher Gregory. Source: The New York Times.


Frank Stella, an American artist famous for testing the limits of abstraction across artistic media, died on Saturday, May 4 at age 87. In a statement announcing his passing, the artist’s New York representative, Marianne Boesky Gallery, said, “A giant of post-war abstract art, Stella’s extraordinary, perpetually evolving oeuvre investigated the formal and narrative possibilities of geometry and color and the boundaries between painting and objecthood.”


Frank Stella’s Early Minimalism Was Subversive and Successful

Zambezi by Frank Stella, 1959. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Frank Stella was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1936 to Italian-American parents. By his early twenties, he had achieved critical and commercial success as a pioneering post-war artist in New York City. At the start of his career, Stella created a series of abstract works known as Black Paintings. Wielding a house-painter’s brush and commercial enamel paint, Stella applied evenly-spaced black lines onto a bare canvas. He painted about two dozen of these daringly flat and colorless compositions in the late 1950s, usually with a pinstripe pattern or concentric lines.


During this time, the most prominent American artists gravitated towards the painterly and evocative brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Frank Stella, however, boldly embraced minimalism in his early abstract paintings. “What you see is what you see,” he once said, dismissing efforts to find any meaning or emotion in his staunchly non-representational work.


The Protractor Paintings

Harran II by Frank Stella, 1967. Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


In the 1960s and 70s, Frank Stella was still painting stripes—but he traded angular geometry and muted hues for eye-catching color palettes and interlocking warped lines. While visiting Iran in 1963, Stella was captivated by the bright colors, intricate patterns, and curved lines of Islamic art. Paying homage to this aesthetic influence, Stella began creating Protractor Paintings, each named for ancient cities in Asia Minor.

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In Stella’s own words, the Protractor Paintings marked a “maximalist” departure from the artist’s minimalist Black Paintings. Stella painted colorful stripes arranged in arcs, sometimes overlapping, and sometimes contained within rectilinear borders. The canvases themselves also took on unconventional shapes, giving his wall art a distinct sculptural feel. Like the Black Paintings, the Protractor Paintings achieved critical acclaim. By 1970, Frank Stella had become the youngest artist to receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.


Stella’s Six Decades of Experimentation

Frank Stella with his work The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain. Source: The New York Times.


The evolution from minimalist to maximalist painting was only the beginning of Frank Stella’s radical creative trajectory. Beginning in the 1980s, Stella increasingly experimented at the crossroads of painting and sculpture in an over-the-top, mostly non-representational style. In 2022, Stella braved yet another new frontier of abstract art with the launch of Geometries, a series of digital sculptures built in Computer Aided Design (CAD). Collectors of this series received the artwork in NFT form along with instructions to 3D print a corresponding physical object.


At the time of his death, Frank Stella had new work on display at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in New York City—a seemingly floating series of massive colorful sculptures for which the artist again utilized 3D printing technology. “The current work is astonishing,” Deitch said in a statement on Saturday. “[Stella] felt that the work that he showed was the culmination of a decades-long effort to create a new pictorial space and to fuse painting and sculpture.”

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.