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Frank Stella looks back on 55 years of making art

Certainly one of the most recognizable names in American art, Frank Stella once famously proclaimed of his paintings that “what you see is what you see.”

The youngest artist to ever receive a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art—in 1970, at age 34—he carved his name into American art history with his innovative shaped canvases.

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His work collapsed the distinction between painting and sculpture by reminding viewers that paintings start as three-dimensional objects. Nor did they constitute flat abstract planes whose domains extended only as far as the edge of the canvas.

Instead, his paintings were things, objects in a room like any other, be it a statue or stick of furniture. This proposition—painting as wall relief—turned out to allow for an incredible, sometimes florid, variety of pieces that started out in the late 1950s and early 1960s as relatively restrained contoured canvases and ended up as today’s dizzying arrays of shapes, colors and forms, protruding into space—often three-dimensionally.

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The arc of Stella’s 50-plus-year career is revisited as the Whitney marshals some 120 objects for this, the most comprehensive survey of his art ever mounted.

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