This article was originally published in the June 2018 Princeton Echo.
A lot has changed at Princeton University in the last 60 years. In 1958 — the year Frank Stella graduated with a degree in history — the university announced that it had offered admission to 1,217 men, hoping to fill a freshman class of 755. It had a pool of 3,480 applicants to choose from, a slight decrease from the previous year. This year, to fill a 1,300-member Class of 2022, the university received a record 35,370 applications and admitted 1,941, 50.5 percent of whom were women.
Times have also changed in the art world. When Stella was a student, his talent was noted, but the value of the visual arts to an elite liberal arts education was up for debate. The art department’s first full-time painter was appointed in 1956, and an article in the Daily Princetonian that December posed a blunt question: “can a gentleman be an artist and an artist a gentleman? Or is the Princeton man too tweedy and refined to dabble in greasepaints and chalk?”
Stephen Greene, the university’s new painter, argued in the article that art was essential and cited one exceptional student: “One of my students, Frank Stella, is probably the most gifted student I’ve had in 11 years of teaching. We put on a small exhibit at the Art Museum and he was able to sell one of his paintings to the Little Gallery for $20. He should become a talented painter.” The Little Gallery was located in Palmer Square where Cranbury Station Gallery is now.
Greene was right that the arts would become an important part of a Princeton education, and right about Stella. As the abstract expressionist painter prepares to celebrate his 60th reunion, the Art Museum has mounted an exhibit, “Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking,” on view through September 23. The show features 41 prints drawn from four literature-inspired series created by Stella between 1984 and 1999. (In 1983, the museum had a similar exhibition, “Frank Stella: Fourteen Prints with Drawings, Collages, and Working Proofs,” in honor of Stella’s 25th reunion).
As part of this year’s reunion celebrations Stella, now 82, will participate in the panel discussion on the exhibition on Friday, June 1, at 2 p.m. at the art museum.
Stella was born in Massachusetts in 1936. His father was a gynecologist, and his mother was a homemaker who dabbled in painting. He attended Phillips Andover for prep school, where his teachers included painter Bartlett H. Hayes Jr., the director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover. But, told by his father that he would only pay tuition at Princeton, Harvard, or Yale, Stella selected Princeton — a school without a true art program. But while he did not at the time consider art to be a career path, he continued to paint, under the guidance of Greene and others, and he quickly established himself in New York City’s art world after graduation.
As Stella’s career took off, so did the arts at Princeton. Alumni returning for reunions celebrations, which continue through Sunday, June 3, may be seeing for the first time the Lewis Arts complex that opened last fall (The Echo, October, 2017). The complex offers state-of-the-art performance, practice, and exhibition spaces and will be showcasing the latest addition to its landscape during reunions weekend: the first component of an installation by artist and architect Maya Lin.
Lin, a Yale alumna best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was commissioned by the Princeton University Art Museum to create a site-specific installation for the grounds near the Lewis Center. In a lecture at the university in early May Lin revealed that the installation would consist of two parts, an earthwork made of mounded earth and titled “The Princeton Line,” and a water table. The earthwork is expected to be complete in time for reunions.
The earthwork is a continuation of Lin’s series “Earth Drawings” that includes installations in Sweden and in Louisville, Kentucky, while the water table will be similar to installations by Lin at Brown and Yale universities. The combination of the 12-foot-long granite tabletop that appears to be floating and the earthwork is intended to create an inviting space for visitors as well as a location for outdoor performances and open-air classes.
For more information: artmuseum.princeton.edu