So, how is Stella relevant to us Melvillians? In 1985, already an influential figure in American art, he "conceives of a Moby-Dick series after taking his sons to the aquarium [at Coney Island, Brooklyn]." (See Frank Stella's Moby-Dick; Words and Shapes; Robert K. Wallace; University of Michigan Press, 2000.) Stella is not the first or last American artist to be influenced by M-D. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Serra, and Jean-Michel Basquiat have all taken stabs at the beast. But Stella's may be the most ambitious. Between 1985 and 1997, Stella produced a series of 266 pieces—including large metal reliefs, prints, monumental sculptures, and a mural—with titles taken from Moby-Dick. In Unpainted to the Last, Elizabeth A. Schultz wrote, "Perhaps no one but Rockwell Kent and Gilbert Wilson has created as many images as Stella that look to Melville's novel." (Written before Matt Kish's herculean effort.)
In 1989, Stella told the New York Times:
The idea of the whale reminded me of Moby-Dick, so I decided to go back and read the novel, and the more I got into it, the more I thought it would be geat to use the chapter headings of the novel for the titles of the pieces.Speaking in 1995, Stella said:
Moby-Dick and Melville are not something I'm trying to touch or follow along with. ... But I really don't want to be parallel to it, either. I guess what I'm tryting to find is ... a way to make some kind of equivalence.Frank Stella was interviewed on May 25, on NPR's On Point. You can see some photos of his work and listen to the interview here. At 33:52 into the recording he talks about the problems involved in communicating "narrative content" via abstraction, and how an off-hand remark by his son drove him to develop the Moby-Dick series.
Some pieces from this series (along with the prices they fetched at a Christie's auction in 2007) can be seen here.
Happy Birthday, Frank Stella.