Published in English in 1959, Wooden Synagogues commemorated the once-grand Polish buildings that Jews prayed in before the structures — and the Jews themselves — were decimated in the Holocaust. In 1970, the architect Richard Meier gave a copy to the artist Frank Stella, who, inspired by the intricacies of the buildings’ slats and layers, created a “Polish Village” series of paintings.
Except the works really weren’t paintings. They were more like sculptures: built-out models of angles, recesses, and odd rectangles that seemed to abstract the religious life of a people whom Adolf Hitler tried to annihilate.
The de Young Museum’s new exhibit, “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” challenges the view that Stella is an artist purely of visual delight. There’s much more to Stella than the vivid colors and playful patterns that practically skip into the realm of Pop Art. In 1964, when he was not yet 30, Stella famously said of his work, “What you see is what you see” — as if his art avoided the kind of deep, sometimes painful essence that characterized the work of, say, Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. In his own way, Stella was exaggerating. Because Stella’s “Polish Village” series, represented at the de Young by three works —Bechhofen from 1972, Kamionka Strumilowa IV from 1972, and Jarmolince III from 1973 — are a reminder that Stella searches far and wide for influences, whether through books like Wooden Synagogues or personal travels that have brought him to Iran, Spain, Morocco, and elsewhere.
At the de Young, inches from Bechhofen, is Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III) from 1970, which takes its name from the ancient Jerusalem entrance that the Ottoman ruler Suleiman I rebuilt in the 16th century. Damascus Gate is Stella at his most expansive: Ten feet tall and 50 feet long, the artwork’s triangular and boomerang shapes pay homage to the history of art, including the spirals and configurations of Islamic art, which Stella would have encountered not just in the Muslim world but in the Islamic edifices of Córdoba and other Spanish cities.
Stella has always been a man of letters and history. As an undergraduate at Princeton, which didn’t have formal art classes, he majored in history with a focus on the Middle Ages, and his senior thesis analyzed art in Western Christendom. In 1983-84, he taught poetry at Harvard University. But Stella doesn’t want his art to exist in an ivory tower. Many of the 50 works in “Frank Stella: A Retrospective” are playful, especially his massive aluminum pieces from the 1970s and ’80s, with their wild colors and twisting geometries, and his steel work from the past decade, whose pipes and tubing practically twist and shout, as if they were crazy spacecraft about to take off.
Stella, who’s now 80, thought abstract art could be made accessible, even beautiful, and he succeeded in helping establish a new direction beyond the aesthetic of Pollock, Guston, and Willem de Kooning. Stella’s influence extends beyond museums and galleries. You see his influence in the lobbies of San Francisco buildings that showcase paintings patterned after Stella’s most famous works. You see his impact in the public sculpture of artists like Nancy Rubins, whose giant work of airplane parts outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles — called Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thompson’s Airplane Parts, About 1000 Pounds of Stainless Steel Wire, and Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space — has the same colorful playfulness as Stella’s later works.
The first extensive U.S. exhibit of Stella’s work since 1970, “Frank Stella: A Retrospective” premiered at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and came to Texas’ Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth before arriving at the de Young on Nov. 5. Even with his most unadorned work, Stella has a way of commanding attention. Bechhofen is surprisingly unpainted — a direct reflection of Wooden Synagogues, whose black-and-white photos and drawings mute the exquisite colors and designs that enveloped the synagogues’ interiors. Bechhofen is the work that signified Stella’s jump from canvases into his more sculptural work. Reading through Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka’s book is to mourn a culture that was crushed by hatred. The wooden synagogues dotted towns throughout greater Poland, and a foldout map shows their spread from east to west. It’s not too reductive to say that the synagogues live on in Stella’s artwork. Stella preserved their memory — in both the titles and the art itself.
Bechhofen isn’t that easy on the eyes. As with many of Stella’s other works, angles bump into other angles, creating spaces that act like counterpoints. There is order and disorder. Structure and dissonance. As Stella (sporting sideburns and long hair) put it in the 1973 film Painter’s Painting, which is screening at the de Young: “I wanted to be able to have what I think were some of the virtues of Abstract Expressionism, but still have them under a kind of control – but not control for its own sake (but) a kind of conceptual, painterly control that I felt would make for stronger pictures.”
One floor above Stella’s retrospective is another retrospective that opened on Nov. 5, this one of Danny Lyon’s photography and films. Lyon established his name in the early 1960s, when he was the first official photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the prominent civil-rights organization that led sit-ins, protests, and political action against racial and economic injustices. Lyon documented the harsh environment that SNCC members and others faced in their public activism throughout the American South. Lyon’s best-known photo from that period, 1963’s Arrest of Taylor Washington, Atlanta, shows a helmeted White police officer with a chokehold over a screaming, Black protester as people watch silently from the sidewalk. Lyon’s SNCC photos are a compelling record of the volatile atmosphere that activists — and Lyon himself — faced in deeply segregationist states, where police didn’t hide their contempt of “outsiders” and “rabble-rousers.”
If Lyon had just done his SNCC images, that would have been enough to cement his photographic reputation. But he has continued to put himself in places where people are facing long odds, whether it’s coal workers in China, rural miners in Bolivia, street children in Colombia, or prisoners in Texas, many of whom Lyon befriended when (in the late 1960s) he photographed and filmed inside the cellblocks of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In the ’60s, he also documented his time as a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, and that decade’s razing of old buildings in Lower Manhattan, which presaged the World Trader Center construction.
These poignant images of apartment complexes in the middle of destruction spotlight an area in stark transition. With Lyon’s cooperation, Julian Cox, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s chief curator and founding curator of photography, orchestrated the exhibit, which is titled “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future.” That “message” is from a self-described dissenter who wants to show a side of America — a side of the world — that he believes is undervalued and under-recognized.
“Frank Stella: A Retrospective” Through Feb. 26 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park), S.F. $15-$25; 415-750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org.
“Danny Lyon: Message to the Future” Through April 30 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. (Golden Gate Park), S.F. $7-$22; 415-750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org.