After 20 years, Frank Stella returns to Ground Zero
On a frosty Saturday morning last weekend, Frank Stella – 85, bespectacled, a little scruffy and holding a cane – was overseeing the installation of a sculpture titled “Jasper’s Split Star” in the public square in front of 7 World Trade Center. “I’m not in such great shape,” he said more than once, but he continued to work enthusiastically, chatting with the small construction team who were building the sculpture using a large crane (although, perhaps telling for this part of New York City, not the largest crane in sight).
They handled Stella’s work with the ease of seasoned veterans; two of their ranks confidently held foil-wrapped sandwiches in one hand as they attached a section of the sculpture to the crane in the other. “What’s amazing about these guys is that they don’t even wear gloves,” said Stella, visibly impressed.
“Jasper’s Split Star” is a 2017 sculpture that Larry Silverstein, the owner of the building, acquired to replace a work by Jeff Koons that was previously on long-term loan in the square. Stella’s piece had previously been on display at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut and was in Stella’s upstate studio when Silverstein reached out to find a new piece for the site. (He declined to say what he paid Stella for the job.)
“Jasper’s Split Star” is constructed from six small geometric grids that rest on an aluminum base shaped roughly like a flower petal. From a certain angle, it looks quite like a gym in the jungle that a spectator said aloud, “I wonder when the first child is going to climb there.” I give it three hours.
It’s kind of a homecoming for Stella, who had two large-scale paintings adorning the lobby of the original Seven World Trade Center, both of which were lost when the building was destroyed on September 11. The sculpture is loosely based on Stella’s own painting from 1962, “Jasper’s Dilemma,” which features two abstract, almost mathematically accurate panels, one vividly colored, the other rendered in dark gray, and was himself Inspired by a quote from Jasper Johns: “The more I paint in color, the more I see everything in black and white.
“He might have said that,” Stella said of the inspiration behind the work, “but I certainly forgot about it.” Of Johns, a contemporary (he is 91) and the current subject of a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum, the latter a few subway stops from 7 World Trade Center, Stella added, “I have always been extremely impressed by the way he laid the paint down.
Stella said seeing Johns’ exhibition at the Whitney made her think of the past – namely the Leo Castelli Gallery, the legendary art dealer Stella shared with Johns, and where the two had their first solo exhibitions there. decades ago. “It was really quiet and comfortable, and you just had to go and see what everyone was doing,” he said. “And then you ate Chinese food after that. After 1980, it was over. Or finished for me. Jasper was older then – and it turned out I was old too then, but I didn’t know that.
What he liked about Castelli was that “it was so simple”, a quality shared by Stella and her work. He once described painting as “a flat surface with paint on it, nothing more”. He’s always good for a terse joke. When asked if there was too much money in the contemporary art world, he growled and replied, “Not enough. And among auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where his work has sold up to eight figures – its auction amount was $ 28.1 million, at Christie’s in May 2019, for ” Point of Pines, ”which he painted when he was 23 – he said,“ Overall they’re pretty chickens. ” (Surprisingly enough, he’s a fan of the Oculus Transportation Hub, which is home to many subway lines, which rolls out of the financial district like a rib cage and is visible from 7 World Trade Center. “It’s a miracle that has happened. been built, “he said” There is nothing else like it. “
Stella and the rest of Castelli’s first list – which also included Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol – were among the most scrutinized artists in history, their aesthetic decisions followed and decoded as if their work was the Rosetta Stone for understanding. American culture.
“People used to talk about artists and say things like ‘Oh, now he’s lost his mind,’” Stella said. “And what now appear to be tiny phases and changes in work back then were the end of a career. It was kind of a joke. But it was serious in the way people reacted to it. For a while, the star – a recurring form in Stella’s work that he started using in the 1960s – was something the artist didn’t want to approach. The name “Stella” means star in Italian and he feared that the work was too much on the nose.
Of course, that didn’t seem to matter much anymore. One of the perks of getting older, he said, is that “you’re tired of worrying about things like this, and you just get by with it. Gesturing towards his work, he concluded, “I mean, it’s hard to let this go.”
Silverstein, 90, the developer of the original Seven World Trade Center as well as its post-9/11 reconstruction, was responsible for integrating Stella into this environment. During the construction of the building, which opened in 1987 and was designed by Emery Roth and Sons, Silverstein fell in love with a certain type of granite, which he used for the lobby. “I put it on the floors, walls, ceilings, toilets,” he said on a phone call. “Everything! When it was finished I looked around the hall and realized it looked like a mausoleum.
This led him and his wife to turn to contemporary art for space in order to “bring it to life”. In this way, they came across Stella, whose work became a kind of center of gravity. People gathered in front of him in the morning on their way to work, as well as other works acquired by the Silversteins.
Silverstein and his wife now live about a block from 7 World Trade Center. They moved out of Midtown after realizing in the elevator of their old building that all of their neighbors were “a bunch of old fogs like us,” as Silverstein put it. “And I finally said, I think it’s time to get the hell out of here.” This area, which is coming back to life after a mass exodus during the pandemic, is much more dynamic. “You have strollers, mothers and pets,” Silverstein continued. “I don’t know where they got the money to pay for these apartments, but they are young. It is phenomenal.
And in Stella’s work, they will have a new local landmark. “It’s permanent as long as Larry leaves it there,” Stella said with trained nonchalance. As the crane lowered the last section into place – “the last piece of the puzzle,” he joked – the artist admired the way the sun hit the artwork. The colors were vivid, but they didn’t hit you over the head. They were subtle. “Like Jasper,” Stella said.