Last month Frank Stella was awarded the International Sculpture Center’s (ISC) Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala event in New York City. Established in 1991, the award recognises artists whose sculptural practice has made ‘exemplary contributions to the field of sculpture’ and who are considered ‘masters of sculptural processes and techniques’.
Stella and Ken Tyler share a collaborative working history that spans three decades and countless innovative projects across an astounding range of media. Tyler was invited by ISC to give a lecture at the presentation of Stella’s award and the transcript of this is published below.
Ten years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at Frank’s National Arts Club Awards ceremony and remember a comment the master of ceremonies, Phil Leider made: ‘Frank Stella is the best all around artist the United States has produced.’
Having worked with Frank since 1967 I fully agree with Phil, and would add that Frank is also one of the most challenging and thoughtful artists to collaborate with. More than any of the other artists that I have worked with, he has helped shape the direction of my printmaking and publishing. Frank’s work has also widened my views on mixed-media and multidimensional art, and even architecture, site planning, and the intermingling of all of the above. Even since my retirement in 2002 from printing and publishing, he continues to form my understanding of art with his sculptures and continual innovations and insights.
Our working relationship began in Los Angelesin the 1960s with my Buster Keaton style attempts to get Frank interested in printmaking. I need not bore you tonight with the story of the tusche-in-the-pen.
Although it took some time, once he fell in love with the print medium, I tried my best to keep up with him in his enthusiasm and rapid flow of ideas. It was like having a racetrack-fast approach, which I muse about as the ‘Stella Formula 1 Express’. The accelerating momentum as a project developed was energizing: as Grand Prix goes, working with Franks is ‘The Grandest’, most especially because after a race is done, the achievement remains like fuel for another. Each project I have done with Frank has propelled the next.
My collaborations with Frank spanned 35 years and has resulted in nearly 400 editions of prints, multiples, monotypes and monoprints created in myCaliforniaandNew Yorkworkshops. We also made: original tapestries in France and Australia; editions of silk scarves in Italy and Korea; editions of ceramic plates in Korea; experimental dress designs in Hong Kong; transfer of his graph paper design to a model for BMW’s 1976 Le Mans race car; prototype paper pop-up sculpture with a leading paper engineer in Chicago; engraving designs for his ‘smoke ring’ images by Tumba Bruk in Sweden; and numerous paper maquettes and honeycomb metal panels for his reliefs made in Arizona and Connecticut.
My first venture outside the workshop with Frank took place shortly after we completed our first print together – Star of Persia,1967 – a lithograph printed with metallic inks. Frank wanted to complete his copper painting series during this time in California with an immense 41 foot-wide painting, titled Sangre de Christo. I arranged for him to make this painting in a friend’s four-car garage and worked with Imperial Ink Co. in Los Angeles to devil up a metallic copper ink that he could easily brush onto canvas.
Then, in the early 1970s, I introduced Frank to Tomkins Tooling, a pattern maker that the workshop was using to make wood multiples. Soon after, a selection of Frank’s Polish Village Reliefs were reproduced as wood reliefs by Tomkins Tooling, including five small maquettes. These maquettes became the models for the Paper Pulp Reliefs that were made in 1974, shortly after I left my workshop inLos Angeles to set up a new shop in Bedford, New York. The Polish Village Reliefs project became a template and springboard for our future work together.
Having completed a successful handmade paper project with Robert Rauschenberg in Ambert, France in 1973, I wanted to continue working with handmade paper and build a facility to do so in my new workshop. Restless to begin a paper project with Frank, I decided to work with John Koller at his papermaking studio in upstate Connecticut. Koller’s shop used Frank’s wood maquettes from his Polish Village series to construct wire mesh patterns that were sewed together, forming 3D relief moulds. These moulds were dipped into a vat of paper pulp, creating sculptural papers in relief. Frank liked our first trials in this medium and agreed to make his Polish Village series in editions of paper pulp. A combination of limited variant editions with hand-coloring gave Frank the opportunity to paint each paper relief impression in paper pulp while they were still wet and newly formed. After the reliefs were dried, he then further painted them in his New York City studio.
From these first paper reliefs we moved on to collaborate on larger and more complicated paper forms in my new, expanded workshop and paper mill in Mount Kisco, New York. We worked with the Tallix foundry to make experimental relief castings in different metals from the Polish Village Reliefs. This project, though, was abandoned. Nine years later, in 1983, we worked again with the foundry to create bronze elements for Frank’s Playskool Series comprised of nine metal wall relief editions, that he uniquely colored with patinas, paints and inks. In 1996, we ventured once more into relief, this time using molds in a vacuum machine to form large circular reliefs 4.5 feet in diameter in both paper and plastic, which Frank individually painted in his studio.
Working on projects outside my workshop with Frank usually originated from our ‘how to’ discussions and my volunteering to explore feasible alternatives for the answers to his questions. Having had a rather chequered background in a variety of manufacturing pursuits helped me to design and build equipment for the workshop and aided in my multiple making projects. Helping Frank solve some of his technical issues was a welcome addition to my workshop activity and created a symbiotic relationship between us.
By the late 70s I had become involved with the construction of Frank’s etched metal relief sculptures. We continued our printmaking, pushing the limits of what a print could be, until we were creating very large, colourful and complicated mixed media works that were often three dimensional. These defied traditional categorization, bringing into the mix sculpture, and always painting, which is unavoidable since painting infuses nearly everything Frank does – layer upon layer and brushstroke after brushstroke. The workshop adopted the practice of team printing and often all of the staff was employed to build a Stella print in ever-increasing size and complexity. The largest is The Fountain, 1992, a mural work in an edition of 8 that measures 7.5 by 23 feet. It is a masterful 67 color woodcut, etching, aquatint, relief, screenprint, drypoint, collage, print hand-colored on three sheets of handmade paper that took fifteen printers a year and half to make. For this project I had a custom made 500 ton hydraulic press with a printing bed size of 92 x 130 inches constructed.
I was always willing to invest time and money in bigger and more ambitious artist projects, as was Frank. Together, over the years, we drove our accountants crazy. Our projects blurred the boundaries of what works of art on printed and unprinted paper could be and that, for me, justified the cost.
Large scale is not always better, but neither of us fell for simplistic maxims. We followed our instincts and let our boundless appetites for size keep a healthy and hearty fire in the belly. Like racehorses, we chomp at the bit, charging at full gallop as soon as we hear the starting bell. Just look at the oversize presses and papers I made and Frank’s huge paintings, sculptures and collages. Our question was never ‘how big’, it was ‘how to make it happen’, and Frank would add ‘how soon can it be created and worked on?’
Discovering new materials, processes and techniques was a constant activity for the workshop, which we shared with Frank. Not every discovery materialized into a project, but quite a few were definite winners. One was the unexpected result we got from wiping etching ink onto a shard of etched magnesium from one of Frank’s honeycomb relief panels being constructed at Swan Engraving Company, and printing it onto a sheet of handmade paper at the workshop. Impressed with the bold, graphic stamped look that this trial produced, Frank started to search for more fragments which he collaged together to produce the powerful black and white Swan Engravings series in the early 80s, a series that propelled Frank into prominence in contemporary printmaking.
Along with the serendipitous find, Frank found a discarded plywood backing board from the milling machine that was used for routing out his relief shaped honeycomb panels. The board had all of the marks from the router cutting through the panels and into the wood, making what Frank exclaimed, ‘was a marvelous drawing reminiscent of a Pollock painting.’ Ferrari-esque speedlines winding with spontaneity….that he could not have better planned.
It was a Eureka moment!
That board, printed in ink onto a newly made sheet of colored handmade paper, became the beginning of the Circuits series. The 16 prints in this series took three years to complete. Meanwhile, we held Swan Engraving hostage until we had every backing board used for Frank’s sculpture series in our workshop.
When I first introduced Frank to Swan Engraving in 1974 to help him with etching one of his aluminium reliefs, I had no idea that the etched magnesium plates made at Swan that we were using as printing elements in the workshop would be the same metal and etching technique that Frank would adopt for the surfaces of his honeycomb reliefs. By 1980, I was assisting Frank with setting up a fabricating studio at Swan Engraving for making honeycomb panels with magnesium etched surfaces and routing and assembling the panel parts for his Exotic Bird Relief Series. I also participated in acquiring from Hexcel Corp. in Arizona the honeycomb metal used in the making of panels. This involvement led me to inventing an archival paper panel patented as ‘Tycore’ that was first used to make scaled models of Frank’s reliefs and later as a substrate to print his editions of large 5 by 7 foot hand colored screenprints.
We spent a lot of time at the Swan Engraving studio in Bridgeport, racing each other down Connecticut’s winding Merritt Parkway, from and to my Bedford, New York shop. Needless to say, Frank had a faster car and was better at racing then I was, so I was always late to work.
It wasn’t very long before Frank observed at the workshop that an inked magnesium plate could be also the unpainted surface on one of his relief sculptures. So my etchers started to travel to the Bridgeport studio with their inks, rollers and supplies and also to Franks 13th street studio in New York. One of my etchers, Rodney Konopaki, was fond of saying that he had wiped the largest etching plate, referring to the relief panels for Frank’s marvelous sculpture titled Loomings (3X), 1986. By this stage, Frank no longer spoke about his printmaking as a ‘hobby’ as he once remarked in the 60s. He was now joyfully using printmaking processes in his own sculptures to great effect.
As Plato said, ‘Because we’re the playthings of the Gods, playing is our most serious activity.’ Frank and I certainly had our share of fun and excitement in the many projects we were involved with.
One of my observations about collaborating with Frank is that he is all about making his art and getting the creative task at hand completed as quickly as possible – all his inspiration in high-gear – and then spending countless hours revising and working on the details. Of course, in a workshop environment this can be difficult, since most processes and techniques are labor intensive and time consuming. Over the years Frank got somewhat used to this and adapted less impetuous behavior, but not entirely without occasional colorful outbursts amid clouds of cigar smoke.
I found Frank, at times, to be keenly interested in new technology. Once introduced to new ideas, he could quickly single out what he wanted to use. Then, when he became impatient with the time it would take to select and use the parts of it that he liked, he would reach out for outside expertise. This ability to add new materials and techniques to his art is of great value for Frank, as well as an expensive one. I have always admired him for his willingness to invest – to bet the farm so to speak – on his art making.
Frank has always been a generous collaborator, giving praise whenever a task was well done. He also shared his enthusiasm for techniques with other artists. For example, when Frank invited his friend Anthony Caro (who at the time was working at my workshop) to the foundry where he was working to show him the sand castings made with molten lead in a giant sand box that he was using in his large sculptures. Frank urged Tony to try his hand at making some trial studies in the sand, but Tony wasn’t ready right then to use the sand casting technique. I’m sure that observing Frank’s ambitious sand drawings with assemblage in the large foundry sand boxes for the first time was a bit intimidating. I believe that, given enough time, Tony too would have been in the sand box playing. As Tony and I left the foundry that day, Frank was with his two dogs, encouraging them to leave their paw prints in the sand along with his own marks.
Frank works at seeing, and also at not seeing what he’s not interested in. His focus is on the form he is making, not the process that makes it. He delegates the process part to you to engineer while he finds ways to proceed in making his art. Everyone therefore has a vested interest in the outcome. It’s a set-up from the beginning and one you don’t want to fail at, so you put forth a lot of effort in doing your part in the collaboration. The success rate for working with a diverse group of tradesmen in making large-scale sculpture can be slim, especially if you can’t motivate and communicate your ideas. I have always marveled at Frank’s style of collaboration: it runs the gauntlet of saying very little with some body language and occasional quips of humor, to giving a dissertation on the subject or task at hand.
Joan Mitchell commented to me in 1992 – when Tyler Graphics was having a Mitchell/Stella print exhibition at our gallery – that I enjoyed collaborating with Frank because he was a hands-on guy like me who liked ‘stuff.’ ‘Stuff’ for Joan was technology and machines, the very things she did not indulge in. And here we have part of the answer as to why some collaborations are more complicated than others – involvement with ‘stuff’.
Observing Frank working in various shops and studios since the 70s, I have seen him embrace new ways to make his sculptural work: from aerospace honeycomb panels in metal and fiber, formed metal, poured metal and sand casting, to 3D additive technology for forming shapes from computer designs. He uses his handmade elements like bent tubing and fiber sheets, along with new materials and techniques, to produce exciting abstract forms, painted and unpainted. The new forms always have the ‘Stella look’, no matter how many state-of-the-art materials or technologies are used. It is of no surprise that he is adding advanced three dimensional printing from digital designs to create his new sculptures, since he has been adding new ‘stuff’ to his sculptures for some time.
This is one of the dichotomies that strikes me: Frank is an artist who states he has no interest in technology; and yet he seeks out and uses new resources and an often futuristic know-how. He definitely shows a natural affinity for the cutting-edge.
He also has a keen eye and a gift for educating. For example, on the Colbert Report on television last year, Frank made a brief guest appearance in an art skit involving a photo portrait of Colbert, worked on by his other guest artists. When Colbert asked Frank if he thought the revised portrait was ‘art’ he replied, ‘if you want to look for art, you can find it’ and then he disappeared. Poof! Like Houdini…..
This is, I think, the serendipitous and open-minded way Frank finds many of his images. With a Melville-like appreciation of high and low, squalid and pristine, silly and serious, it is no wonder that ‘stuff’ from so many sources makes Stella’s studio a place for alchemy. A rusted hulk of steel, the left over armature of a foundry casting, or tourist’s Brazilian twisty beach hat, can become a sculpture with profound grace and impact.
We can only speculate, given more resources and materials to discover, how much further Frank will push his art. We are fortunate to have this titan, uninterrupted in his lifelong art-making endeavors, always surprising us with his intellect, dynamism and invention.
Congratulations Frank on your well earned award this evening.
For more information on the art of Frank Stella and his collaborations with Ken Tyler, visit the Kenneth Tyler Printmaking Collection website: http://tinyurl.com/44z7lnd.
Tyler is referring here to the way in which he managed to convince Stella to start making prints. When first approached by Tyler with the idea of making lithographs, Stella refused, saying he couldn’t work by drawing with tusche as he only drew with felt-tipped pens.Tyler took this as a challenge and disguised lithographic tusche as ink in a marker pen, thus beginning their 35 years of collaboration.
 Swan Engraving Company is located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and specialises in metalwork. Stella and Tyler worked extensively with the company during the creation of several of Stella’s print series.