Frank Stella, Towering Artist and Master of Reinvention, Dies at 87

Frank Stella, whose laconic pinstripe “black paintings” of the late 1950s closed the door on Abstract Expressionism and pointed the way to an era of cool minimalism, died on Saturday at his home in the West Village of Manhattan. He was 87.

His wife, Dr. Harriet E. McGurk, said the cause was lymphoma.

Mr. Stella was a dominant figure in postwar American art, a restless, relentless innovator whose explorations of color and form made him an outsize presence, endlessly discussed and constantly on exhibit.

Few American artists of the 20th century arrived with quite his éclat. He was in his early 20s when his large-scale black paintings — precisely delineated black stripes separated by thin lines of blank canvas — took the art world by storm. Austere, self-referential, opaque, they cast a chilling spell.

Writing in Art International magazine in 1960, the art historian William Rubin declared himself “almost mesmerized” by the “eerie, magical presence” of the paintings. Time only ratified the consensus.

“They remain some of the most unforgettable, provocative paintings in the recent history of American Modernism,” the critic Karen Wilkin wrote in The New Criterion in 2007. In 1989, “Tomlinson Court Park,” a black painting from 1959, sold at auction for $5 million.

Mr. Stella, a formalist of Calvinist severity, rejected all attempts to interpret his work. The sense of mystery, he argued, was a matter of “technical, spatial and painterly ambiguities.” In an oft-quoted admonition to critics, he insisted that “what you see is what you see” — a formulation that became the unofficial motto of the minimalist movement.

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