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Mirvish Productions Mourns the Death of Artist Frank Stella (1936-2024)

For Immediate Release

Seminal Abstract Artist Contributed Over 10,000 Square Feet of Art to Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre

The Marquee Lights of the Theatre Will Be Dimmed to Honour Stella’s Work on Wednesday, May 15th, 2024

Frank Stella 1993 - Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Frank Stella at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Frank Stella a giant in post-war American painting – Minimalism, Color Field and geometric abstraction – and one of the most influential visual artists of the 20th century, died on Saturday, May 4th, 2024 at his home in New York City. He was 87 years old.

To mark Stella’s passing and to honour his legacy, the marquee lights of the Princess of Wales Theatre, which is a living testament to Stella’s art, will be dimmed on Wednesday, May 15th, at the traditional curtain time of 8PM.

Stella’s work in Canada was first seen at the David Mirvish Gallery in May 1966. That began a long association and friendship between Stella and Mirvish, culminating in their collaboration on the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993.

During construction of the Princess of Wales Theatre – the first privately built stand-alone theatre building in North America in 50 years – Mirvish offered the theatre as a blank canvas to Stella.

At the time, Stella was working on his Moby Dick series. Having taken Herman Melville’s 1851 epic whaling novel as a catalyst, Stella intended to create 135 works, one for each of the novel’s chapters. Ultimately, he created over 300 paintings, sculptures and etchings between 1986 to 1997.

Both a continuation and daring departure from Stella’s earlier work, this series is bold, vibrant, energetic and seemingly chaotic. In an interview Stella said: “I think the Moby Dick series is a kind of turning point. I was a little afraid, and probably still am a little, with Moby Dick, but the pictures are essentially curved surfaces. They started to really move, and the novel moves; you’re going around the world, it’s pretty wet, there are a lot of waves and motion."

Stella’s audacious, playful and arresting murals, both interior and exterior, bas-reliefs and decorative elements for the Princess of Wales Theatre continue and expand the artist’s Moby Dick iconography.

In the auditorium, Stella adorned the traditional elements – the dome ceiling, the sounding boards at the top of the proscenium, the balcony-fronts and the end caps of seat rows – in the Moby Dick visuals. The swirls of primary colours pop and the various geometric shapes cast shadows, giving the work a sense of three-dimensional space.

The theatre’s upper lobbies feature floor-to-ceiling custom murals of what Stella called debris d’atelier, discarded materials in his studio related to the Moby Dick series – fragments of proof prints, wire mesh, random pieces of canvas. From these he created sculptural reliefs more than 20-feet-long that he then photographed and had printed on canvas using a four-colour separation process used to make billboards. Some murals are visible from the street and create an otherworldly atmosphere that lures the spectator into the fantasy world of the theatre.

The lower lobby was created in the historical tradition of mural painting, hand-painted on plaster. The imagery here is derived from Stella's reading of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, the 1980 book by Argentinian Canadian writer Alberto Manguel and Italian historian Gianni Guadalupi.

Stella continued the theme of Moby Dick outside at the very back of the theatre on a massive mural painted on the wall of the building’s stage tower facing Pearl Street.

This wasn’t Stella’s only foray into theatrical design. In 1967 he designed the sets for Scramble, a dance piece by Merce Cunningham. A year later, he even designed the lithograph poster for the Merce Cunningham company’s Latin American tour. In 1999, he designed the sets for a new production of the classic musical comedy The Pajama Game, directed by Simon Callow, that played at the Princess of Wales after runs in Birmingham and London in the UK. The production in Toronto was a unique case of the set on stage complementing the décor of the theatre.

Frank Stella Biographical Information

Frank Stella was born on May 12 in 1936 to first-generation Italian American parents in Massachusetts. He studied art and history at Princeton University. Upon graduating he moved to New York and supported himself by painting houses. He said: “I wasn’t thinking of becoming an artist. I just wanted to make things and paint for a while.”

Attracted to the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and inspired by Jasper Johns’ meticulously detailed flag paintings, Stella created canvases of black house paint with pinstripes of unpainted lines. Called the Black Paintings, this series of radical canvases stretched abstraction in new directions and prefigured Minimalism.

Stella’s work was immediately recognized and was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s now-famous group show, Sixteen Americans, in 1959. Stella was 23 years old, the youngest artist of the 16. The Black Paintings created a sensation and established him at the forefront of a new generation of artists.

This was the beginning of a rich and varied six-decade-long career in which Stella explored many ideas and obsessions in several thousand paintings, sculptures, reliefs, prints and collages, reinventing himself every few decades. His work was shown in prestigious museums and galleries around the world. He has had many major retrospectives, the first one at MoMA in 1970, when he was only 34. A second MoMA retrospective took place in 1987.He was the youngest artist the museum had honoured in this way. When the Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in New York in 2015, it was Stella who was chosen for the museum’s inaugural retrospective.