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Frank Stella to Receive Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts

Artist, crusader for artists’ rights will speak to CFA grads

v_Frank Stella_ Kiriko Shirobayashi.jpg

As well as being an artist, Frank Stella, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2009 by President Obama, is also an advocate for the rights of artists. Photo by Kiriko Shirobayashi

Frank Stella, whose paintings and structures of many colors, shapes, and sizes are collected by museums around the world, will give the convocation address at the College of Fine Arts on Saturday, May 21, at 11 a.m., at the Track and Tennis Center, and will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts at Boston University’s 138th Commencement, on May 22, 2011.

CFA Dean Benjamin Juarez says he is thrilled to offer students the chance to be inspired by Stella’s remarkable artistic journey. “Frank Stella, an artist of our times and a real innovator, has played a major role in defining ways beyond the prevailing abstract expressionism of the ’50s and ’60s for American art,” says Juarez. “His creative spirit has driven him to express himself through many art forms—including painting, sculpture, and printmaking—over those years.”

In 2009, Stella was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. He is one of a handful of artists whose work, moving away from the emotion of abstract expressionists of the 1950s and toward a more impersonal and intellectual aesthetic, was the inspiration for the term “post painterly abstraction,” coined by the famous art critic Clement Greenberg.

Stella’s potential was recognized early in his career. After majoring in history at Princeton, he moved to New York City, where he was inspired by the abstract expressionist works of Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock. In 1959, when he was just 23, Stella’s paintings were included in the Three Young Americans show at Oberlin College, and in the Sixteen Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1970, he became the youngest artist to be given a retrospective exhibition by the Museum of Modern Art.

In four decades, Stella’s work has evolved from thin stripes of black on an unpainted canvas to monumental multicolored sculpture. In the 1970s and 1980s, he journeyed from shaped canvases to three-dimensional wall pieces, often incorporating cones, waves, and French curves. In the 1990s, he started building large freestanding sculptures, often using different types of metals and fiberglass. Many have been installed in the courtyards of art museums, including the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C.

Stella, who lives in New York, has thrown his considerable influence into protecting the rights of artists.

Asked what advice he would offer young artists today, he says the most important thing is simply to have what it takes to “stay involved.”

“Committed is a strange word,” says Stella. “But you do have to stay involved. You have to be able to keep on liking what you’re doing, even when things aren’t going the way you want them to go. There is no way around that. It’s an individual choice in a collective endeavor, and you really have to decide if that’s what you want to do.”

Frank Stella is one of six honorary degree recipients at this year’s BU Commencement. Victoria Reggie Kennedy, an advocate on behalf of children and families, will be presented with a Doctor of Law. Jacques Pépin, chef, television personality, and author, will receive the Doctor of Humane Letters. NPR journalist Nina Totenberg will be presented with a Doctor of Humane Letters. Baccalaureate speaker Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist and a professor at California Institute of Technology, will receive a Doctor of Science. Commencement speaker Katie Couric, the Emmy-award winning broadcast journalist and the first solo woman anchor of a network news broadcast, will be awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters.

Art Jahnke can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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