Frank Stella on the Colorado road trip that inspired his Copper Paintings

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Anderson Ranch Arts Center will honor Frank Stella with its 2015 National Artist Award. Stella will speak Thursday at the ranch.
Courtesy of the artist, Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, and Dominique Levy, New York and London |

If You Go …

Who: Frank Stella, in conversation with Jeffrey Grove

Where: Anderson Ranch Arts Center

When: Thursday, July 16, 12:30 p.m.

More info: The event is sold out.

In the summer of 1957 — before he was crowned a seminal American artist, before his quip “What you see is what you see” became a credo for a generation of minimalist painters, before he became the youngest person honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art — before all that, a 21-year-old Frank Stella took a road trip through Colorado.

It was the summer before his final year at Princeton University, after which he would move to New York and begin his groundbreaking career. He and a friend, who was living in Colorado Springs, took a Kerouac-inspired sojourn through mountain towns such as Ouray, Pagosa Springs and Telluride. The trip soon made its way into Stella’s work, in his Copper Paintings series, each one named after a town they visited.

Stella, as was a signature of his early work, used common materials and remaindered paints. In this case it was a cheap copper paint that he’d used to coat the bottom of his father’s fishing boats in his native Massachusetts.

“It’s very metallic,” Stella said recently from his home in New York. “And copper, to me, is Colorado — the mining and all of that kind of stuff.”

The mountain landscape inspired the odd shapes of the Copper series — first exhibited publicly at Galerie Lawrence in Paris in 1961 — none of which were made on traditional square or rectangle canvases. His “Creede” paintings are made on canvases of right angles, inspired by the way the town is cut into the mountainside. Irregularly shaped canvas remained a part of Stella’s practice for decades.

“It seemed to fit in with the geometry I was working with,” Stella said.

“Telluride” is a big copper “T.” “Ouray” is fashioned as a cross, inspired by the legends of preachers crossing the mountains in winter 1877 to bring religion to the godless mining town.

“It was not a lot of time, but it was intense,” Stella said of the road trip. “It was a strong impression. It was the first time I was in the mountains. I come from the East Coast, so it was a dramatic experience when I was young.”

Stella hasn’t spent much time in Colorado since then, but this week he is in Snowmass Village — which wasn’t incorporated as a town until two decades after Stella’s Copper Paintings travels. The Anderson Ranch Arts Center is honoring the painter with its annual National Artist Award. He will speak at the ranch today.

When he graduated the summer after his Rocky Mountain road trip, Stella moved to Manhattan and immersed himself in the downtown scene alongside Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and other iconoclastic New York painters of the day.

“All the painting I admired was being made there, and it was still new, it was still fresh,” he said. “You could go to the galleries and see what Kline was doing or whoever and it was free. All you had to do was support yourself and the art was happening all around you and you could go see what was going on. You were in it. Amazing, now that I think about it.”

The success of Stella’s minimalist, monochromatic aesthetic of the late 1950s and early ’60s has evolved constantly in the decades since, moving into a wildly expanded palette of color and materials. His work in recent years has been on massive, architectural installations, and he has been the subject of major retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007) and Kunstmuseum in Germany (2012). His “Die Fahne Hoch!” — from his Black Paintings series — is included in the new Whitney Museum of American Art’s monumental opening show in downtown Manhattan.

This week, Stella will be addressing artists working at Anderson Ranch, many of whom are working in the new frontier of art, where digital scanners, fabricators and 3-D printers are doing much of what the artist’s hand once did.

“I was stunned when I looked at the program,” he said of Anderson Ranch. “It’s quite sophisticated. They’re offering all the things that, fortunately, I won’t have to do in the digital future.”

Despite his self-deprecating comments, Stella, at 79, is embracing new technology, collaborating with engineers and using 3-D printers to make things that the hand can’t, incorporating elements such as 3D-printed bubbles, for instance. He’s unconcerned about technology disconnecting the artist’s hand from the artist’s work.

“I can’t be sentimental about it,” he said. “Who knows what the hand actually means and when it meant something. A lot of the great art of the past, those were multiple hands. You don’t know who did what and what apprentices did.”

An artist’s ideas and imagination, of course, have always been the essential tools of the trade. Stella, the son of a physician, whose wife and two of his children also are medical professionals, noted the unique position of artists, where education and technical proficiency doesn’t necessarily translate into greatness.

“You don’t want to go to a doctor who is self-taught,” he said. “The education process that’s available to artists, on the technical level, maybe it has something to offer. But you have to bring something to it to make it work.”

That “something” can come from anywhere — from looking at other art, reading “Moby-Dick,” or from a road trip through Colorado.

“I mean, I look,” he said. “I like to think that I look as everyone else does. But people probably don’t pay as much attention to the things that catch my eye. I’m looking for something that’s related to what I working on that’s not working out. So I’m always looking and I don’t know where I’m going to find it.”