Frank Stella Fulfills Montgomery Fellowship in Style

Stella’s “Irregular Polygons” are currently on exhibit at the Hood.By Benjamin M. Riley

Dartmouth’s Montgomery Fellowship Program, part of the Montgomery Endowment, has historically been one of the administration’s constant bright spots. No other program supported by Parkhurst has brought such great talent to these far woods and no other program routinely sees capacity crowds for its events. Funded by a gift in 1977 from Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth F. Mongtomery, ’25, the program seeks “to provide for the advancement of the academic realm of the College in ways that will significantly add to the quality and character thereof, making possible major new dimensions for, as well as extraordinary enrichments to, the educational experience offered primarily to undergraduate students within the Dartmouth community.” Put simply, the program brings important cultural people to campus to give a lecture and occasionally throw the students a bone by teaching a class or staging a performance. 

Yet, the program has been trailing off a bit in recent years. Though it did not feature jaw-dropping talent in the beginning, the 1980s brought speakers to campus who can only be called cultural touchstones – Updike, Cheever, Malamud, Foucault, Vonnegut, Galbraith, Bellow.  The fact that these speakers can be identified by last name only proves how culturally significant the programming was. 

Though the 1990s offered names like Vidal, Roth, Halberstam, and Kearns Goodwin, there was a clear drop in both magnitude of the fellows and the frequency of show-stopping speakers. By the 2000s the only names worth mentioning are Albee, Didion, Tutu, and Brooks (both David and David L.). Thus, it is clear that the program has, for whatever reason, fallen off to some degree. Maybe it is the increasingly harsh economic climate or maybe it is the raising of speakers’ fees. Or perhaps it is some reason unforeseen by anyone. Whatever the case may be, it is safe to say that the Montgomery Fellowship had entered into a period of decline.

It may be over.  Although these past two years have not featured an abundance of cultural icons, there have been two notable exceptions, both coming in the past two academic years. Both men are iconic modern artists and truly embody how grand the Montgomery Fellowship can be. Last year’s was the famed environmental artist Christo, most famous for his mid-aughts project in Central Park called The Gates. Though I did not have the opportunity to see Christo last year, I made it a point to see the current Montgomery Fellow. 

“Moultonville II,” from Stella’s series “Irregular Polygons.”This year’s Fellow? None other than Frank Stella, one of the foremost modernists and minimalists in art. Although modern art is not specifically my cup of tea, this was a lecture that needed to be seen. The program, a question and answer session in the Hopkins Center’s Spaulding Auditorium also marked the triumphant return of the Hood Museum of Art’s most recently departed director, the always-popular Brian Kennedy. The program, presented in conjunction with the Hood’s celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary, occurred on a rainy and cold Friday afternoon, the kind of New England fall day that doesn’t get advertised in leafing tour company brochures. The inclement weather, however, did not stop Alumni Hall from being filled to its brim with both students and older members of the community. After a brief introduction by Richard Stamelman, executive director of the Montgomery Fellowship, Kennedy, who also guest-curated the Hood’s current exhibit of Stella’s seminal series Irregular Polygons, got right to the questions. 

Kennedy’s questions were clearly intended to address what the essence of Stella and his art are. Through the questions, Stella was able to explain his artistic vision and how it shaped the arc of his career. Described by Stella were his “love for the sensuality of pictorial space” and his love of “shapes as shapes.” These tenets can be seen in practice, especially in the Irregular Polygons series. The illusion of volume, combined with the stark flatness of the compositions, gives direct heed to the above compliments. On the question of illusion, Stella maintained that the pictorial world, and specifically painting, are merely “what we see” and what “seems real.” A master of abstraction, Stella defined the term as the “giving up” of “illusion.” He professed a loathing for mere “representation” by saying that “abstraction is the only thing” and “representation is for other people.”  Additionally, Stella expressed fear of “being hemmed in” and yet his work is an exercise in restraint. Perhaps his minimalism is a manifestation of his expressed desire for intense control over “space that [he] can function in.” 

When asked to define himself as an artist, he used the term “pragmatic classicist.” Although a term like that seems to have great semantic punch, it is tough to discern its true meaning. Being the skilled speaker that he is, however, Stella explained at length that he is a classicist in his adherence to a set of values and love of that which is simple and beautiful. The pragmatism label is merely a way to describe his lack of an inclination toward either idealism or naturalism. 

Kennedy’s question about the serial nature of his art seemed to irk the irascible (though perhaps the term is avuncularly grumpy). To the outside observer Stella clearly works in series, creating a set of similar works in a relatively short time period and then moving on to a distinctly new style. Yet when asked about this, Stella scoffed and said that he failed to see the difference between his shifts in style and Picasso’s periodical shifts like Rose and Blue. Besides this minor blip, however, Stella happily answered the questions and engaged the crowd like someone who has been doing sessions like this for his entire life.  Maybe that is because he has – Stella has been a fixture in the art world for decades now and it shows in both his overarching knowledge of art history both modern and older and in his ability to communicate his ideas to a crowd comprised of a few experts and even fewer amateurs. 

A particularly interesting question that Kennedy posed was asking whom Stella makes his art for.  Stella replied, like the perfectly modern man he is, that he makes art only for himself and that it “only exists if it gets by [him].” And yet for such a seemingly selfish figure, Stella’s work has affected the lives of millions – what a pleasant coincidence. Regardless of what one thinks of the man’s views on art, to hear him speak on the subject is to a gain a great respect for the man. Though modern art is not something I take a great fancy to, people like Frank Stella are why the modern art movement is both popular and monetarily valuable. Though I am not willing to spend millions for a piece of Stella’s work, it is easy to see why some are. Part of what modern art buyers pay for is the personality of the artist and it is certain that Stella’s personality is one of the largest remaining ones in the art world. This shined through in his talk and greater Dartmouth is lucky to have seen it.

What struck me more than anything about Stella, though, was his sense of humor. For such an important and recognized artist, Stella displayed a keen sense of self-deprecation and a willingness to avoid taking both his art and art in general too seriously. He joked that although he still makes art, he “stopped being an artist in 1975” and when asked whether he thought he had been a good father he chuckled and told Mr. Kennedy that the question was irrelevant. Furthermore, he poked fun at his obsession with cars, horses, and speed in general as the “Italian futurist” in him. Stella knows how to work a crowd.  He had the audience in fits. 

Rare is the artist who is able to expound of the meaning of his work and the cultural zeitgeist while at the same time keeping the audience on its toes with well-timed witticisms. Stella performed with aplomb and it is heartening to see the Montgomery Fellowship providing worthwhile programming yet again. Here’s to more of it.