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A rare showing of selections from “Exotic Birds,” a series of works by Frank Stella, will be exhibited Feb. 5-March 9 at the Richard A. and Rissa W. Grossman Gallery in Lafayette’s Williams Visual Arts Building, 243 North Third Street, downtown Easton.

Considered perhaps the greatest of the contemporary abstract artists, Stella will interact extensively with art students and faculty during a day-long campus residency March 6 as Lafayette’s Grossman Visiting Artist for 2001-02. On that day he will also give a free, public lecture at 4 p.m. in Colton Chapel, followed by a reception at the Grossman Gallery, Williams Visual Arts Building, from 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (610) 330-5828.

The Grossman Visiting Artist and Exhibition Series, established in 1992 by Richard Grossman, a 1964 Lafayette graduate, gives students opportunities to interact with major 20th-century artists and supports presentation of significant exhibitions. Past Grossman visiting artists include Dorothea Rockburne (1992), Faith Ringgold (1993), Robert Beauchamp (1994), Richard Anuszkiewicz (1995), Elizabeth Murray (1996), Leon Golub (1997), Gregory Gillespie (1999), Ann Hamilton (2000), and Sam Gilliam (2001).

“The program has brought to campus some of the most significant artists of the later 20th century,” notes Robert S. Mattison, Lafayette’s Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History. “The strength of the residency lies not only in the quality of the artists who have visited, but in the intensity with which they have interacted with the students, both within the department and outside it. A decade of Lafayette students has been profoundly influenced by the Grossman Artist-in-Residence program.”

Stella created “Exotic Birds” in the mid 1970s, and the series was considered so important that a critic called it his “second career.” The series has not been shown together since the 1980s. The exhibition includes a “constructed” painting, “Mysterious Bird of Ulieta,” measuring about eight feet long, of mixed media on honeycombed aluminum, and a suite of large prints based on paintings in the series.

On Wednesday, March 6, Stella will spend the day with Lafayette art students and faculty. He will meet informally with art majors, then speak on “old master” painting and modern art with students currently studying Introduction to Art History and Italian Renaissance art. He will speak with students in several other classes, including Senior Seminar in Art History, Advanced Painting, Drawing, Painted Word, and Printmaking. On Tuesday, March 5, art faculty will spend an evening with Stella.

Stella’s recent projects have included enormous freestanding cast aluminum pieces and entire architectural environments. Stella’s “Heinrich von Kleist” series has been touring major European cities for nine months, and his 31-foot-high sculpture “Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, Ein Schauspiel, X3” was just unveiled in front of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

A significant display of Stella’s painted reliefs and paintings is being shown at the Paul Kasmin Gallery on 10th Avenue at 27th Street in New York. In addition, a book linking a 266-piece Stella series with Melville’s Moby Dick was recently published. The author, Robert K. Wallace of Northern Kentucky University, has assembled an exhibition of 13 of the prints at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum.

“Never one to rest on his laurels, Mr. Stella has pushed forward with a kind of relentless, maybe desperate ambition,” notes a New York Times review. “His career has been an endgame about painting whose main purpose is to demonstrate that the game is far from over…With each series, and especially since the onset of his aluminum reliefs, Mr. Stella has steadily become a better artist.”

“He’s probably the greatest practitioner working in abstract art, going back to the 1960s,” says Robert S. Mattison, Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Art History, who profiled Stella in his book Masterworks. “We have a strong tradition of abstract art in the Lafayette art department, so Stella’s visit and the exhibition of his works will be inspirational for our students.”

Stella graduated Princeton University in 1958 and moved to New York, where he has been based ever since. He soon began using metallic paint on canvases that were geometrically shaped to coordinate with the designs on their surfaces. These visually forceful paintings were viewed as significantly altering the direction of the international art world. Stella used bright colors and more complex patterns for a series of concentric squares and mitered mazes in 1962-63. In 1967, his compositions became curvilinear with the creation of his Protractor Series.

Stella created paintings and constructions in 1971-73 that he named after Polish synagogues destroyed by the Nazis. The pieces suggest unattainable relationships between intersecting planes. In the latter part of the series, the works began to actually project from the wall, and while Stella spoke of these pieces in terms of investigations of “real” space, his spatial configurations had become extremely complicated and deliberately ambiguous, according to Mattison.

Also in this period, Stella etched and painted brightly patterned metal reliefs known as the Brazilian Series, Indian Birds works, and the Exotic Birds works, the latter of which are featured in the Lafayette exhibit. His art in subsequent years, which included metal reliefs with titles from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, confirmed his mastery of mixed-media abstract constructions.

In Stella’s “Circuits” (1980-82), the spatial tension and complexity that he had courted in his earlier career reached an explosive climax, notes Mattison. The reliefs explored the limits of the artist’s organizational abilities and the fringes of what the eye and mind can comprehend. The “Circuits” were individually named after automotive racetracks on the European Formula One circuit, and the constructions propose analogies between the swerving path of a race car seen at speed and the spectators’ visual reflexes.

In 1983, Stella was named Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry by Harvard University, an honor previously bestowed on such artists as Igor Stravinsky, T.S. Eliot, Bernstein, Luciano Berio, and Calvino.

Stella’s “Moby Dick” series (1986-89) featured a new configuration, the wave. Previously, the projecting forms in Stella’s constructions had been largely planar — the surfaces were flat and the designs confined to the edges, explains Mattison. By contrast, the waves are curved-space structures; they feature both curved edges and curved faces. While working on the “Moby Dick” series, Stella was reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (1987), a book providing popular history of the seminal developments of chaos theory. Stella’s interest in vortex dynamics and chaos theory as models for an ever-changing world led to his prints “Imaginary Places,” created in 1995-96 and displayed two years ago at the Williams Center art gallery.

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