The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has acquired Frank Stella’s Palmito Ranch (1961) from the artist’s landmark “Benjamin Moore” series, which ushered in a new current of Minimalism in American art. The acquisition is a combination museum purchase from the Caroline Wiess Law Accession Endowment and gift from the artist, who made the donation in memory of the late MFAH director, Peter C. Marzio (1943-2010).
“Peter Marzio was everything you would want from the director of a great museum,” Stella commented about his gift. “I got to know Peter when the MFAH invited me to create murals for the 1982 Stella by Starlight gala; from then on I counted him a friend.”
“Palmito Ranch builds on the MFAH‘s longstanding commitment to the work of Frank Stella,” said Gwendolyn H. Goffe, interim director. “It was among the last works of art that Dr. Marzio had the opportunity to propose to the museum‘s board, and we are profoundly grateful to both the board and to Stella for their support in making this acquisition possible. Now on view in the American galleries of the Audrey Jones Beck Building, Palmito Ranch is a truly radiant presence.”
“We had the privilege of working closely with Stella on this project,‖ commented Alison de Lima Greene, curator of contemporary art and special projects. “He was the first to point out to me how the title has a special resonance for Texans and he has recalled that it was one of Robert Rauschenberg’s favorite examples of his work. But more important, as the artist himself has stated: ‘Palmito Ranch is as special and as beautiful as a painting can be.'”
About Palmito Ranch
Palmito Ranch is among Stella’s most reductive compositions. It is part of the artist‘s 1961 “Benjamin Moore” series, so named for the Benjamin Moore paints that Stella chose for their intense colors and flat, matte surfaces. Individual titles within the series were taken from Civil War Battles; the Houston painting takes its title from the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last Civil War Battle, fought on Texas soil on May 12–13, 1865.
However, it is formal rather than thematic concerns that Stella engages in Palmito Ranch. The other paintings in this series play with maze-like patterns or simple diagonals; Palmito Ranch is unique in its understated, stacked composition, where painted line and raw canvas create an even, horizontal rhythm. Its saturated palette, measured proportions, and glowing presence are at once immediately vibrant and classically timeless. Interviewed by William S. Rubin regarding the “Benjamin Moore” series, Stella stated: “They were certainly the clearest statement to me, or to anyone else, as to what my pictures were about—what kind of goal they had.”
About the Artist
Frank Stella was born on May 12, 1936, in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton were among his classmates. In 1954 he entered Princeton University, where he studied painting with Stephen Greene and majored in history, writing his thesis on Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts. Shortly before his graduation in 1958, he saw Jasper Johns’ “Target” paintings at Leo Castelli Gallery, an encounter that prompted his first foray into striped compositions. Moving to New York City, he supported himself as a house painter, and launched into the celebrated “Black Paintings” during the winter of 1958-59. His work was introduced in the landmark Sixteen Americans exhibition curated by Dorothy Miller for the Museum of Modern Art in 1959.
In the 1960s Stella’s explorations of saturated color and reductive compositions became icons of the decade as he tested the limits of painting through shaped canvases and an ever-increasing use of scale. In the 1970s and 1980s he opened up his work to fresh frames of reference, embracing new industrial materials, exuberantly three-dimensional forms, and architectural space. At the same time, he began to delve into a new range of sources across the history of art and architecture. In particular, his work responded to the architecture of sacred spaces, from Poland‘s rustic wooden synagogues to the dynamic edifices of Baroque Rome.
Celebrated by two major retrospective exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art (1970 and 1987), Stella maintains an international presence today. His early paintings were the subject of a 2006 exhibition organized by the Harvard Museums that traveled to The Menil Collection, Houston; his explorations of sculpture and architecture were shown by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007; the Irregular Polygons of the mid-1960s have been examined afresh by the Hood Museum of Art and the Toledo Museum of Art in 2010 – 11; and his collaboration with Santiago Calatrava is the focus of a major installation currently on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Frank Stella in Houston
Frank Stella has enjoyed a long history with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The museum first acquired one of his shaped canvases in 1973 through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. S. M. McAshan, Jr.; in 1982 the MFAH commissioned the artist to fill its Mies van der Rohe galleries with a series of temporary murals for the Stella by Starlight gala (the 15 maquettes for these murals have been preserved in the museum‘s collection); in 1987 Stella‘s first out-of-doors sculpture, Decanter, was installed in the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden through the generosity of the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund; and in 2005 The Joseph and Sylvia Slifka Collection donated Stella’s Lunna Wola I, 1972. The monumental Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation III), 1970, was acquired in 2009 as a gift of Alice Pratt Brown. It was the highlight of the MFAH‘s 2010 gala celebration of American Art, which Stella attended. Outside the MFAH, Stella is also represented in The Menil Collection, and in 1997 he completed a major mural cycle for the Moores Opera House on the campus of the University of Houston.
Complementing the acquisition of Palmito Ranch, the MFAH has received an important related gift, Stella’s 1967 Black Series II. Among the artist‘s first explorations of lithography, this suite of eight prints, 15 x 22 inches each, was published by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles. They are now recognized as among Stella‘s most iconic graphic statements.
Black Series II comes to the MFAH as a gift from Marc, Judy, and Hayley Herzstein, and Brooke, Dan, and Lily Feather, in loving memory of Max Herzstein, Houston entrepreneur and arts patron. While the MFAH has exceptional examples of the artist‘s later graphic production, the gift of The Black Series II addresses a major gap in the Prints Department and importantly expands on the museum‘s representation of the revolution that galvanized American printmaking in the 1960s.
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the MFAH is the largest cultural institution in the region. The majority of the museum‘s presentations take place on its main campus, located in the heart of Houston‘s museum district, which comprises the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Glassell School of Art and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. The Beck and Law buildings are connected underground by The Wilson Tunnel, which features James Turrell‘s iconic installation The Light Inside (1999). Additional resources include a repertory cinema, two significant libraries, public archives and a state-of-the-art conservation and storage facility. Nearby, two remarkable house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. The encyclopedic collections of the MFAH are especially strong in pre-Columbian and African gold; Renaissance and Baroque painting and sculpture; 19th- and 20th-century art; photography; and Latin American art.
The MFAH is also home to a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art, the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA).