Way up high along Seaport Boulevard, you’ll see a shimmering panel of multicolored arcs and bars, layered and interlocked like a brain-teasing puzzle. It’s a replica of Frank Stella’s “Damascus Gate (Variation I),” from 1970, pinned to the facade of a condo tower, and you don’t have to be particularly in tune with art history, local and otherwise, to appreciate the various ironies dripping from its weatherproof surface.
Stella, born and raised here in Malden, is a bona fide American art icon, a central figure in the country’s embrace of abstract art and its resulting rise to art-world dominance in the 1950s and ’60s. That, of course, happened in New York. As the American avant-garde gained momentum in the postwar years and abstraction surged, stodgy Boston famously took a pass, the story goes, largely missing out on what might be the country’s most significant contribution to art history (more on that in a minute).
What’s still surprising, though, is that the Seaport’s “Damascus Gate” redux — paid for by a developer, adorning its tower — is Boston’s one and only major public art work by Stella, likely the city’s most celebrated artistic progeny. (MIT has one of Stella’s hybrid sculpture-painting pieces, the 12-foot tall “Heads or Tails,” from 1988, hanging inside in its Tang Building; a panoramic Stella painting, 1994′s “Loohooloo,” fills the boardroom in the university’s Department of Architecture and Planning.)
It’s not for lack of ability: Stella started working with computer-aided design software in the 1990s, an unsurprising turn for an artist whose taste for gleeful experimentation is the only constant in an iconoclastic career. He’s been making monumental public sculpture for more than a decade. His 2015 work for the courtyard at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, “Inflated Star and Wooden Star,” towers more than 20 feet high; “K.304,” a massive perforated vortex of silvery aluminum, sits in a field in upstate New York.
And it’s surely not for lack of bona fides: Stella had his first career survey at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, while still in his 30s, and then another in 1988. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted his career retrospective — the first major solo show in its glorious new building.
Stella was in town last week for the unveiling of the “Damascus Gate” replica, and seemed nothing but delighted (“It really works,” he told me later by phone, unsentimentally. “It’s easy to see, it’s big enough to attract attention — it’s something to really look at.”) But the work’s arrival, and Stella’s, also exhumes a complicated history, and just as many questions.
His sudden appearance in Boston’s newest quarter, more than six decades after his artistic ambitions drew him to New York, stirs up ghosts and says a lot about the ambitions of two cities, both of them enviably moneyed and deeply invested in their cultural institutions, going in opposite directions at the middle of the last century. When Stella was a student at Phillips Academy in Andover in the early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was peaking in New York, with the Museum of Modern Art zealously championing its ascent. The museum very deliberately helped make superstars of its main players — Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still — and positioned itself at the center of a burgeoning art-world takeover by a robust crew of radical American painters.
In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts largely sidestepped the whole affair, staking out its territory with earlier Modern icons like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. Abstraction, it might have reasoned, was a passing fad — best not to get in too deep. In its orbit, smaller institutions were doing the work the museum presumably found distasteful — notably, the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips, where Stella had been a student. There, he absorbed the burgeoning narrative of Abstract Expressionism that was largely absent from the city’s key institutions downtown. “We saw Jackson Pollock there, Franz Kline — everything that was going on in New York. It was very advanced,” he said.
So Stella set out for New York — what else could he do? — landing first at Princeton in the mid-1950s and then on to the city in 1958. That wasn’t a Boston problem so much as it was an everywhere problem — New York had established itself as a Modern art seedbed decades before, when the photographer Alfred Stieglitz began pulling various groundbreaking artists into his orbit around his 291 Gallery in the early 1900s.
But Boston was a unique case. It was outrageously affluent and flush with patrons and collectors able to support almost anything. The MFA’s reticence around abstraction came to define the city’s cultural ambitions at a critical moment: For Boston’s art-world elite, time seemed to stop in the early 20th century even as American art in the 1940s was blossoming into a dominant force. By the ’50s, Boston was no place for a young artist energized by burgeoning abstract avant-garde. That much was clear.
The full story is more complicated than that, as it always is: the Boston Museum of Modern Art, born in 1936 as a younger sibling to MoMA, broke away in the 1940s — a split often used to support claims of Boston’s stodginess. The opposite may have been true, according to Richard Meyer’s 2013 book “What Was Contemporary Art?" He describes the Boston Museum — which became the ICA — as being concerned that MoMA had become too narrow and exclusive, defining Modern art as a direct line from European Modernism to Abstract Expressionism — a line championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, Abstract Expressionism’s high priest.
The Boston museum wasn’t wrong, it turns out — MoMA is still correcting its record to be broader and more inclusive, embodied in the complete do-over of its permanent collection galleries, freshly reopened last week after six months of work. But stories get simplified over time, and reputations stick. Boston’s wasn’t completely unearned — Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings, told me there was “an embarrassing lack of interest in abstraction" at the museum for decades, stretching right into the 1960s — though that wasn’t uniformly true, as these things never are. (”It’s just not the ethos here,” Stella told me, confirming a reputation still much in need of rehabilitation.)
At Princeton, Stella honed an austere technique of rigid lines on dark backgrounds. He arrived in New York just in time to help write Abstract Expressionism’s obituary: MoMA, proving itself able to adapt and survive, embraced the shift and put Stella’s “Black Paintings” in its 1959 exhibition “16 Americans.” Stella was just 23. He quickly became a leader in the movement called post-painterly abstraction, which served as both Abstract Expressionism’s death knell and a bridge to seismic art-world shifts in Minimalism and Conceptualism. A little more than a decade later, Stella would be the youngest-ever artist to have a solo survey exhibition at MoMA. The rest is history.
History, though, has a way of sticking around, and in the strangest of ways. “Damascus Gate,” looming over the just-add-water neighborhood of the Seaport, haunts the city’s newest space with the specter of one of its most spectacular cultural misses. A remedy, or at least part of one, stares you right in the face: A major public sculpture by an American icon and native son would do much to unlock a regrettable chapter in our history, and help make amends. Frank Stella is 83, Boston, and not getting any younger. Isn’t it time to give him a proper welcome home?