On Monday night the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE) held a panel discussion at Christie’s in honor of the 90th birthday of one of its most famous participants, Ellsworth Kelly. Titled “American Abstraction Since Ellsworth Kelly,” the Robert Storr-moderated talk featured a star-filled, inter-generational roster of Lynda Benglis, Frank Stella, Julie Mehretu, and Odili Donald Odita, each of whom has participated in FAPE’s program to put contemporary art in U.S. embassies in one way or another.
“We’re at a very good moment to think about abstraction as the prime example of why pluralism in art is a good thing,” Storr told the packed auditorium, by way of an introduction. “All of the artists here have that freshness.”
Each artist began by briefly talking about their work and interest in abstraction, with Odita leading off, followed by a kind of free-associative tag cloud poem Mehretu recited. “The studio equals a machine,” she practically rapped. “Find the breach, the gap, the fissure… Opacity equals radical potential.”
Then things got very casual and filled with reminiscences as Stella and Benglis discussed their own work and their interactions with Kelly — who sat up from the front row at one point to recount how he first met Stella, when they were in MoMA‘s 1959 exhibition “16 Americans.”
“To see Frank’s pictures made me feel like I was doing OK,” Kelly said. “I told Dorothy [Miller, the exhibition’s curator], ‘I have to talk to this guy.'” The two then traded studio visits and have been friends ever since, though Stella’s reverence for his elder remains evident to this day.
“It’s a little hard being here with Ellsworth because I want to stay competitive, but he’s older than I am,” Stella said, getting a lot of laughs. “Ellsworth was a wonderful example of how to function as an artist.”
The conversation veered back and forth between old stories about New York in the late-1950s and ’60s, and serious discussion of the topic at hand, with Benglis and Odita sallying forth on the latter. Benglis explained how her upbringing helped set the stage for her interest in materials like foam: “I was lucky enough to have a father who was pretty successful in business, so I became a materialist.”
Stella, however, had the night’s greatest lines, from his least favorite artist — “I would have to say Dali; it doesn’t get more trashy” — to the origin of abstraction. “The Museum of Modern Art just had an exhibition [“Inventing Abstraction”] that told us all about that,” he said. “It’s Cubism.”
The evening concluded with just one question from the audience. A gentleman asked the panelists what they would tell a 10-year-old who wants to become an artist. Stella took the question on behalf of the group, quipping: “By and large, art is not difficult to make as long as you don’t think about it.”
— Benjamin Sutton (@bhsutton)