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Waves & Whales in Frank Stella’s Moby Dick Series

Waves & Whales in Frank Stella’s Moby Dick Series

January 7, 2019 // by Caitlin Swindell

The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck_580
© FRANK STELLA, The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck, 1991. Etching, aquatint, relief, and Carborundum on white, shaped TGL handmade paper, 73 x 53 x 6 inches. Collection of Preston H. Haskell. © 2018 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Visit MOCA Jacksonville to view Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking before it closes; the exhibition will be on view through January 13. Frank Stella Unbound, organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, features four different print series inspired by and named after a distinct work in world literature, including: the Passover song Had Gadya, a compilation of Italian folktales, the encyclopedia Dictionary of Imaginary Places, and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. 

Stella's interest in the epic novel Moby-Dick of 1851 began after observing Beluga whales at the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn. Stella explained, “The idea of the wave and its various permutations is what drives this new series. Once I started on the wave shape, I saw it began to look like a whale-a combination of waves and whales. I got the idea for the shapes at the aquarium, particularly from watching the way the Beluga whales move. The idea of the whale reminded me of Moby Dick, so I decided to go back and read the novel and the more I got into it, the more I thought it would be great to use the chapter headings of the novel for the titles of the pieces.” (Frank Stella Unbound, 74).

Installed at the center of the third-floor galleries, and just behind the blue introductory wall, are nine prints from Stella's Moby Dick series, 1989-93. Stella created at least one work for each of the novel's 135 chapters, totaling 266 unique works of art. The selected prints from the series included in this exhibition highlight Stella's narration through abstraction and use of multiple printmaking techniques.

The Moby Dick dome prints, for example, incorporate complex and technically challenging printmaking elements. For The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck (above), Stella inserted a concave circular element into the center of the work's corresponding printing plate. Stella worked with Ken Tyler of Tyler Graphics, and a team of assistants to create the resulting works, which utilized a press of Tyler's invention. While not discernible in the above image but readily visible in the exhibition, the resulting dome prints incorporate a bulbous three-dimensional component at the work's center.

The white wave-whale form at the center of this work is a part of the convex section, appearing as though the whale is in movement. Not bound to a rigid definition of abstraction, Stella demonstrates how layered shapes and forms can be a part of an action or activity, and thus provide a narrative impact.

Visit Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking at MOCA Jacksonville through January 13. Exhibition catalogues are available for purchase at the Guest Services desk if you are looking for a takeaway in celebration of this fantastic exhibition.

Exhibition catalogue: Abbaspour, Mitra, Calvin Brown, and Erica Cooke. Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum; distributed by Yale University Press, 2018.





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