An exhibition centers on the paintings the artist created in his senior year at Princeton and in the months following graduation

One evening in the fall of 1955, Michael Fried ’59 – then a Princeton freshman, now a noted art critic — attended an editorial meeting of the Nassau Literary Magazine in the basement of Whig Hall. His attention was drawn to a short, wiry young man sitting on a sofa, intently doodling with a marker on a pad of paper, producing, as Fried later recalled it, “these incredible abstract drawings.”

“Who’s that guy on the couch, drawing?” he asked Thomas Carnicelli ’58.

“Oh, that’s Frank Stella,” Carnicelli answered.

“Does he want to be an artist?” Fried asked.

“That’s all he’s ever wanted to be,” Carnicelli replied.

Within 18 months of his graduation from Princeton, at a time in life when most of his classmates were sitting dully in law school classes or fumbling through their first jobs, Frank Stella ’58 was one of the most important artists in the world, a comet who exploded abstract expressionism in a series of black, almost brutally minimalist paintings that seemed, in the words of art historian Robert Rosenblum, to “close the door on what art could do.”

Stella’s work from his last months at Princeton and first months as a young artist living in New York City is the subject of an exhibition titled “1958,” which will be at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, through Dec. 31, following appearances at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Merrill Collection in Houston. The exhibit covers paintings and sculptures, many never before shown publicly, that Stella made during that year and that, in a way, made him. By the end of 1959, when he was only 23 years old, Stella had earned representation by the prestigious Leo Castelli Gallery and had a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Stella was a person who was very much in the right place at the right time,” says Hal Foster, the Townsend Martin ’17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton. “He was able to reconcile two very different models of painting”: the formal, geometric shapes that had come out of abstract expressionism, and the more minimalist work of artists such as Jasper Johns — much of whose work, in its flat presentation and familiar subject matter, called into question the line between art and object.

The significance of the current exhibition, says Rosenblum, who is a New York University professor and the curator of 20th-century art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is that it uncovers a body of early work that had either been dismissed as “mere juvenilia” or ignored altogether in the excitement over Stella’s audacious minimalism. What Stella’s very early work shows instead, Rosenblum insists, is “a gorgeous, sensuous colorist.” Stella’s early compositions, he believes, are a strong precursor of his work in the 1960s and thereafter, which turned away from minimalism.

When Stella first arrived in Princeton in 1954, the University’s art department did not offer any drawing classes, which Stella — who majored in history — says suited him fine, as he had little interest in taking them. The following year, William C. Seitz *55, later a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, began to offer a noncredit, free-form drawing course that met, for lack of any other space, in the architects’ work area at McCormick Hall. According to Darby Bannard ’56, a close friend of Stella’s and a noted abstract artist, the architecture students resented having to share their space with painters and would sometimes deface their work, leave wet paint on work stools, or scrawl signs asking, “Is this art?”

A year later, Stephen Greene was hired to teach Princeton’s first studio art class. Greene, Stella recalls, “taught in the traditional method. You brought in a model, you draw the model, and after you do it for a while you can paint. But I was kind of an annoying student. I didn’t want to paint from the model. I just wanted to make paintings. So after a while [Greene] gave up and said, ‘You’re incorrigible. Just go ahead and make the paintings and forget about an art class.’”

Traditional, representational art bored Stella. “I just thought I was too far behind” what was going on in modern art to waste time sketching, he says. “[Willem] de Kooning and [Franz] Kline had been fighting Picasso for years” to take older painting styles, such as Cubism, to a new level in which painting was entirely nonrepresentational and non-objective, Stella says. “All of the painting that had developed from 1945 to 1950 had been a tremendous struggle to get through that and [the abstract expressionists] had come out on the other side. I wanted to start on the other side. I didn’t want to have to fight a battle already won or lost.”

By the fall of 1957, recalls Sidney Guberman ’58 in a 1995 biography of the artist, Stella was painting both “thick gestural action paintings” influenced by Kline and de Kooning, as well as “smaller paintings, controlled and delicate, with exquisite balance and color arrangement” that seemed a cross between the surrealist Paul Klee and the Russian abstract expressionist Nicholas de Stael. Without a place to store the works he was creating at McCormick, Guberman writes, Stella gave most of them away.

Stella and his artistic friends talked to Seitz, his teacher, to learn what was going on in the contemporary art scene. Each month Stella pored through Art News, identifying shows in New York he wanted to see. On one of those New York excursions in January 1958, Stella saw a Jasper Johns exhibition at the Castelli Gallery, which included Johns’ famous American flag painting — a work that, with its familiarity and repetitive, geometric shapes, called into question whether it was a painting of an object or the object itself. Returning to Princeton, Guberman writes, Stella stopped doing imitations of Kline and de Kooning and began to interpret what he had seen of Johns.

Stella’s work for much of the rest of the year, says New York Times art critic Roberta Smith in a review of the current exhibition, “show[s] a young artist cognizant of but hardly paralyzed by the innovations of the abstract expressionists and scrambling to assimilate the influence of Mr. Johns.” At least two of those works, Stella believes, were done in that borrowed space in McCormick Hall. A Perfect Day for Banana Fish, which takes its title from a story of suicide by J.D. Salinger, carries some of the thematic darkness Stella says he also admired in the minimalist playwright Samuel Beckett. The second canvas, Tundra, incorporates some of Johns’ signature lines but also shows the deliberate reworking and overpainting that distinguish them from mere objects. Stella says that he rolled up both canvases and took them with him to New York when he graduated.

Each generation of artists, Rosenblum suggests, tries to make its name by rebelling against the dominant artistic style, a struggle he calls a generational “act of patricide.” Because modern art was dominated in 1958 by the abstract expressionists, Stella in his early works “sort of imitated the major abstract painters, spat them out, and moved on to something else, emerging with his own signature look,” Rosenblum says. One of Stella’s cardboard and wood sculptures from 1958, for example, called Them Apples, responds both to work such as Johns’ flag and target paintings and to Paul Cézanne’s still lifes. The title is Stella’s rebellious rejoinder to those artists, saying, in effect: “How do you like them apples?”

Although many of Stella’s works in 1958 continue to play with repeating lines, they are vividly colored, balancing between the abstract expressionists and his developing minimalism. But by the end of the year, Stella’s black paintings — the first of which are in the new exhibition — had taken Johns to an almost authoritarian extreme. These paintings were, Rosenblum says, “an act of insolence” by someone so young, and had the qualities of an artistic manifesto, “totally burying the past.”

By the mid-1960s, however, Stella had moved back into more colored, less geometric, even fanciful work of painting and sculpture. Rather than simply leading to the dead end of minimalism, Stella’s early compositions now can also be seen to point the way toward his work in the 1960s and later. “It was,” Rosenblum says, “as if he had picked up these threads from 1958.”

Today, Stella, 70, lives in a cluttered row house on a quiet side street in Greenwich Village and works in a studio in upstate Newburgh, N.Y., where he makes large sculptures that are the antithesis of the flat paintings he did as a young man. The walls of his open living room are lined with art, most of it done by friends, the seriousness broken by a pool table and a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush that greets visitors at the top of the stairs.

He says he dislikes the photographic flatness of much contemporary art, a style that is itself perhaps the current generation’s “patricide” against its artistic fathers, including himself. “The lack of real physicality and tactility for me — yuck. I’m not saying you can’t make great art that way. Somebody certainly will someday.”

Asked why his 1958 work was so important, Stella replies, “The paintings were tremendously satisfying and made me want to make more paintings and to make the ones I was working on better. There was a physical entanglement. I was tied to the paintings and it worked for me. I was never distant from the work I did. I was committed to it.”