ANDOVER — Frank Stella first saw Hans Hofmann’s painting “Exaltment” when he was a student at Phillips Academy. He’d stop by the home of art teachers Patrick and Maud Morgan. “Exaltment,” hanging in their living room, captivated him.
That painting is now in the collection at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. Hofmann, a legendary teacher who counted the Morgans among his students, instructed artists to create “push and pull” in their paintings: contrasts of color, form, and texture. In “Exaltment,” a central tornado of jutting, weaving forms moves against flat sections of red, ocher, and purple. It clenches, swirls, and releases.
The painting is on display downstairs from “Frank Stella Prints: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation,” now up at the Addison, an exhibition so rollicking that it is, in the end, exhausting. The museum has given a lot of room to Stella; in addition to the print show, which features more than 100 works, there’s a gallery devoted to his gifts to the museum, and a hallway of ethereal, moody work by his teacher at Princeton, painter Stephen Greene.
The Hofmann pulled me up. It looks so much like a Stella, midcareer on.
Compare it to “Pergusa Three,” Stella’s 1983 relief and woodcut. A red serpentine curve winds through patches of printed lace, wing-like scoops of gestural white-blue, and more. Same thing: a cyclonic, busy, central form, full of push-pull.
Stella didn’t start out this way. His minimalist work brought him early acclaim. The Museum of Modern Art included him in its “16 Americans” show, in 1959, when he was just 23; he set the template for young art stars. His landmark “Black Paintings” heightened the idea of paintings as objects, as opposed to pictures, and owe a debt to Jasper Johns.
Over the years, Stella’s aesthetic has veered from minimalist to baroque, growing ever more gestural, layered, and complex — florid and strutting. His work fell out of favor in the 1980s and ’90s. Abstraction had gone stale in the popular imagination, and Stella, unswerving disciple to pure abstraction, labored on. In recent years, the genre has revivified, and so has Stella’s career.
“Frank Stella Prints” comes on the heels of a Stella retrospective in 2015 at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. The artist is a print geek, bewitched by the medium’s many techniques and variations, and has restlessly, exultantly pushed its limits.
His partnership with master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, first at Gemini G.E.L. print workshop, and then at Tyler Graphics Ltd., was long and steady as a marriage. When Tyler retired in 2001, Stella folded up his own ink-stained apron. At 80, he still paints and sculpts.
The show adroitly demonstrates the critical role printmaking has played for Stella. His prints feed his paintings and sculptures, which in turn feed the prints.
His early prints, such as those in the 1967 “Star of Persia” series, were based on paintings, but they weren’t simple recapitulations. For the “Notched V” paintings, he built zig-zaggy structures from six chevrons; here, he made stars, each chevron a new color, pinstriped with silver.
The exhibition’s first gallery, filled with minimalist stars and concentric squares, has a serenity and clarity missing from the pyrotechnics in the later galleries. The “Newfoundland Series: Bonne Bay,” after the “Protractor” paintings, lyrically interlaces bold arcs and right angles in pungent tones, balancing tension and fluidity, and building a sense of space, a place to breathe.
From there, though, it’s off to the races. Stella grew bolder with his experimentation. This is thrilling to see at first; I walked into the gallery where “Pergusa Three” hangs, amid other stunners in the “Circuits” series (named for auto racetracks), and felt like dancing. They have rhythm and heat; they shake their hips.
Stella had started out simply, with lithography and screenprinting. Here he began to experiment and layer, using stained handmade paper, etchings, and woodblock printing. “Circuits” riffs on metal-relief paintings; he was also expanding off the canvas. From here on, the techniques pile on.
His skill and eye are exquisite, as is his ability to weave in push-pull on push-pull. He contrasts sizzling colors, manipulates perceptions of space (in a strangely earnest nod to the pictorial illusionism he shuns). His forms embrace and argue like ill-fated lovers, then spill off the edge of the frame. Every print is as fiery and adrenaline-filled as a “Fast and Furious” movie.
Stella’s titles, drawn from geography, literature, and more, imply another level of intrigue, but that’s a tease. They insinuate a story we may search for . . . and maybe find . . . although God knows if it’s really there. Stella made more works based on chapters of “Moby-Dick” than there are chapters. Those here are dramatic and splashy, but I don’t see an ounce of story.
Usually, as in Hofmann’s “Exaltment,” a convoluted central form writhes and whipsaws against varied grounds. But Hofmann understood that moments of quiet could play into dynamic art, and Stella doesn’t seem to.
One of the last print series he made, “Scwharze Weisheit,” derived from computer images of smoke rings, simplifies to black and white and leaves the ground blessedly uncluttered. Even these forms, though, are hyperactive, and — for smoke — dense and knotty. They careen like all the other roller coasters in this park, and in the end, it’s a few score thrills too many.
FRANK STELLA PRINTS: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation
At Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 180 Main St., Andover, through July 30. 978-749-4015, www.addisongallery.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.