Though he is known for his engagement with a wide-ranging array of visual art practices, Frank Stella is no stranger to the literary arts. Literature has played an incredible role in Stella’s artistic practice and has served as a driving influence for some of his most impactful innovations in printmaking. This influence came to the forefront in the middle of his career. Between 1984 and 1999, Stella created four print series based on and named for four separate literary works—Had Gadya (1982-84, based on a Jewish Passover song published in 1919), Italian Folktales (1988-89, based on Italo Calvino’s book of the same name), Moby Dick (1989-93, based on the Herman Melville classic), and Imaginary Places (1994-99, inspired by Alberto Menguel and Gianni Gaudalupi’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places).
Taking inspiration from each of these works’ distinctive narrative structures—a song, a collection of stories, a novel, and a catalogue of fantasy locations—Stella channels each great work of literature into beautifully crafted print series. Though he takes cues from the literature, Stella does not aim to illustrate the texts. The prints are distinctly abstract, much like the rest of his oeuvre, and do not depict literary events. Rather, each series reflects the narrative structure of its respective literary work. The geometric cone and cylinder Had Gadya, for example, act as recurring characters in all of the prints of that series. All of the series’ titles are taken directly from the song itself, the full series repeating the song’s full text, as if the recurring geometric motifs mirror the song’s recurring characters. The Moby Dick series also derives its titles from the text itself, this time from the novel’s chapter headings. The Imaginary Places series, based on a catalogue of fantastic lands, is made up of works that stand independently, each of them containing worlds of their own compressed onto a page. Storytelling, and exploring geometry as a means of creating a narrative, was essential to these prints. In his own words, “Abstraction didn’t have to be limited to a kind of rectilinear geometry or even a simple curve geometry. It could have a geometry that had a narrative impact. In other words, you could tell a story with the shapes.”
Stella is known for revolutionizing nearly every medium with which he worked, but perhaps none as radically as printmaking. These four series are strongly representative of the kind of innovation that Stella has become known for. By the time Stella embarked on the last of these series, Imaginary Places, he had begun to incorporate a plethora of media in single artworks, including (but certainly not limited to) lithography, etching, relief, engraving, hand-coloring, collaging, woodcuts, collagraph, stamping, and aquatint. The resulting artworks have highly intricate and heavily layered compositions that take advantage of a full realm of technological possibilities, each of them creating unparalleled visual experiences that prompt a viewer to understand action and sequence, unpacking the layering of techniques that come together to suggest exciting worlds to explore and intricate stories being told.These four series, galvanized by the literary works that they are named for, showcase Stella’s engagement with text and literature. Printmaking became essential to his visual thinking, and his integration of multiple techniques gave him increased freedom to create works of greater scale, complexity, and dynamism that would change the landscape of printmaking for a younger generation of artists to come.