Research: Colour – Frank Stella, Hélio Oiticica and Jessica Stockholder

Updated on 6 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

2 August 2016. Off to a marathon session on artist research. In order to broaden considerably my knowledge of contemporary artists, I was given a list of names to look at. First, on the use of colour.

American pioneer minimalist and post-painterly abstract painter and printmaker Frank Stella (*1936) reminds me somewhat of Josef Albers, whose influence is visible in several of his meticulously planned and executed geometrical forms following the “shaped canvas” concept. An example of this is e.g. “Gray Scramble” (Stella, 1968-1969). Wondering about the name of the work I noticed the transition, from edge to centre, a number of nested greys broken by what I guess might be primary blue, red and yellow in real life. Although I would expect the bright colours to stand out from the grey, this is not the case. There appears to be a smooth transition from “front” to “back” of the tunnel-like impression. This may of course be helped by the bright yellow centre, which suggests light at the far end of the tunnel. I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the shaped canvas concept and hard edge painting, although I recognize the important contribution to our knowledge about colours and their relationships as well as their influence on the human mind. At the same time Stella intended to lead the viewer back to the notion that a canvas is a flat surface rather than adhering to the old idea of it being a “window onto three-dimensional space” (The Art Story, n.d.). I understand that this is a rebellious attitude questioning the traditional view, but for me, living in a freer art environment many decades later, it is difficult to understand the achievement and why it had to be fought for in the first place. In later years Stella returned to abstract expressionism, where the power and motion in a story is more important than the narrative itself (a famous quote of his being “What you see is what you see” (The Art Story, n.d.)). For example, he produced a series of paintings referring to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, as e.g. in “The Fountain” from 1992 (Stella, 1992).

A contemporary of Stella was the Brazilian Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980), a major achievement of who was to extend the above research on the effects of colour into three-dimensional space (Gallagher, 2017). Looking at some of his installations reminds me strongly of interior design elements typically used in the 1960s and 1970s, with a short renaissance after 2000. His artistic endeavour, by leaving the canvas-bound exploration, seems to have been powerful enough to lead to the application of his findings on objects and settings of everyday use. The question that arises here, of course, is whether such installations are art or design in the first place.

Moving on to the Canadian sculptor and installation artist  Jessica Stockholder, who, born in 1959, works a generation later than the former. She is intrigued by colour and the idea that the materiality of a surface bears the capability to hold and transport fiction (Stockholder, 2011). So she started experimenting with the reactions of colour on a variety of surfaces and quickly became aware of the fact that she was dealing with physical and mental boundaries. The latter resonates strongly with me as a a biologist. Boundaries are some of the most profound prerequisites necessary to form life at all and then to keep it alive. We as living organisms are constantly struggling at our boundaries to adapt the inside to the outside and only when we die our boundaries dissolve, both in sheer being but also spiritually. So I was very curious to see how Stockholder approaches the boundary. Her artworks page (Stockholder, n.d.) has an overwhelming array of paintings and installations, which share an indulgence in bright colour.

3 August 2016. They were not exactly what I expected and to be honest I felt a bit disappointed, but serves me right, this is what happens if I allow expectations to govern what I see. So I had another look. Stockholder seems to have taken on Oiticica’s ideas and expanded his experimentation with colour to everyday objects and situations from tiny to monumental. I guess that I understand now that it is not the real objects I want to pay attention to but their many interfaces with the surrounding space (colour, texture, shape, 3D form, position in space all responding to environmental conditions) and the respective interactions extending to the people perceiving and interpreting them. For an idea of what I mean see the video of an interview with Stockholder (The University of Chicago, 2012).

Which gave me enough to think to make my brain smoke.


Gallagher, A. (2017) Hélio Oiticica: Exhibition Guide [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stella, F. (1968-1969) Gray Scramble [oil on canvas] [online]. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]
Stella, F. (1992) The Fountain [print, relief, intaglio, stencil, collage and hand-colouring] [online]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (2011) My Work This January 2011 [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

Stockholder, J. (n.d.) Jessica Stockholder: Art, Writing, Video Documentation [online]. Jessica Stockholder, Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.) Frank Stella. Anerican Painter and Printmaker [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 2 August 2016]

The University of Chicago (2012) ‘Color Jam’: A conversation with Jessica Stockholder [online]. The University of Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 3 August 2016]


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