First published in 1851, Moby Dick is widely considered to be among the finest works of American literature. It tells the story of Captain Ahab’s journey to track the epic whale he encountered on a previous expedition. Stella had first read the book in his youth and about the time he also saw the 1956 film version directed by John Huston. Initially the artist was not impressed by neither the novel or the film, and it took him thirty years to resume reading Melville’s book. Stella did however not rediscover Moby Dick in a library or bookstore, his revelation instead occurred at the New York Aquarium, on the edge of Atlantic Ocean at the Coney Island Beachwalk. The artist began to explore abstract wave shapes for the first time in his early 1980s series Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya. He later began to associate this shape with the contours of a whale during one of his visits to the aquarium. Stella has explained this revelation, “The first thing we saw every time we went into the aquarium were the Beluga whales in the tank just as you came right in the door. They were just sort of looming over you, as it were. I just kept seeing them for about two years, and then one day the wave forms and the whales started to come together as an idea” (Frank Stella cited in: Robert K. Wallace, Frank Stella’s Moby Dick: Words and Shapes, Michigan 2000, p. 7).
In the Moby Dick series, Frank Stella daringly flouts the conventions of the traditional frame, creating a body of work that has taken him far beyond abstraction. In Of Whales in Paint the viewer encounters a marvellous synthesis of styles that brings everything from the surreal landscapes of Salvador Dalí, via the explosive paintings of Willem de Kooning, and the complex biomorphic reliefs of Jean Arp, to mind. Critics have celebrated Stella’s more sculptural work as the natural progression of his early prodigious career. William Rubin, the influential curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was so taken by a visit to Stella’s studio in 1987 that he expressed: “Standing amid the dozens of paper models that represent the second group of new paintings… during a recent visit to Stella’s studio,” he enthused, “I could not but be overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of his ideas, and the immense outpouring of energy on which they ride… I would consider that the best of the metal reliefs of recent years are superior even to the finest paintings of the early sixties. And with the prospect of decades of development lying ahead, one can imagine that there is still greater and more unexpected work to come” (William Rubin in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella 1970-1987, 1987, p. 149).
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