This History File post has been submitted by ceramist and educator Frank Bosco from his 1984-85 collaboration with Frank Stella. The images are decidedly raw, slides taken at the time for record purposes only, but they add a feeling of period and immediacy. We have chosen to show them as is— grain, stray hairs, scratches, schmutz and all. They document a career-changing moment.
I met Frank Stella in 1980 while working a day job for the London-based fine art printing firm the Petersburg Press, which at that time was producing off-set lithographs at a facility housed at Stella’s home on Jones Street in New York.
Through the grapevine Stella learned of my background in ceramics (since many of the employees at Petersburg were artists) and invited me to recreate, in ceramic, a maquette of a relief made from aluminum litho plate material that hung in his print shop.
I was fresh out of graduate school, working a menial day job (albeit for a pretty interesting company). On one day I was driving around Manhattan delivering prints to collectors and on the next day I was back in my Jersey City studio developing a ceramics project with Frank Stella. It was a very surreal moment to say the least.
It was up to me to decide on a process for converting the metal into clay and since they were to become multiples, I went with slip-casting. At first I faithfully recreated the maquette, making molds directly from the thin metal forms, which proved to be somewhat flimsy under the weight of the plaster. So I started to improvise. After all, as an artist myself, I could anticipate and create forms that could possibly dovetail into the reliefs. So using gator board (a thick gauge type of foam-core), I began to cut out shapes and slip them into the composition. Stella saw them, liked them, and so a collaboration was born. Moreover, with my knowledge of slip-casting and the process of pigmenting slip, I was able to cast colorful clay inlays into the surface of the cast elements. Again, Stella liked the effect and answered by painting in and around my patterning with oil paint.
I worked alone for the most part with sporadic visits from Stella and Larry Rubin, his dealer at that time, to check on my progress and hash out logistics. For example, Rubin expressed his reservations: “Well, Frank, ceramics are fragile and maybe no one will buy them.”
In all, eight reliefs were created with the intention of producing an edition of seven. But with the fragility fear factor now haunting Stella, no edition in ceramic was produced. Therefore, all eight pieces are unique. By 1983 the ceramic project was well underway and metal armatures were being designed that would hold the cast elements in place, in suspension.
Of note is that the series of ceramic reliefs marked a turning point in Frank Stella’s output heretofore, a shift from painting into high relief and sculpture. It also marked the beginning of work inspired by Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, which is still a force in Stella’s work.
On the heels of the ceramic project I was looking for a way to continue our collaboration. An under-looked, and no less under-appreciated process of extruding clay forms seemed to be a shoe-in for making the kind of shapes I thought Stella could appreciate. With an extruder there’s a die pattern (a negative space) that starts out as a drawing which is then cut out of a special plywood or metal through which the clay is pushed into dimensional forms. Creating a group of die patterns, I extruded enough terracotta shapes to fill a cargo van and drove over to Stella’s Manhattan studio. He responded immediately by assembling them into compositions and at the onset the idea was to slip and score the parts together as a final ceramic entity. But, again, the fear of fragility was in the equation.
Myself, Jim Welty, who was one of Stella’s master printers and his assistant, and Spencer Tompkins, (the son of Calvin Tompkins who was the the art critic for the New York Times and New Yorker), drove up to Peekskill, New York and handed off the first prototype ceramic relief, Untitled to Dick Polich at Talix Foundry and had him reproduce it in steel. This was done without Stella’s knowledge. The idea was to surprise him with the concept, which he loved and eventually pursued with the other seven ceramic reliefs. He made copies of each cast in aluminum. So Stella’s later metal sculptures from the late ’80’s were a hop, skip and jump from painting (and reliefs) to sculpture by way of ceramics.
Both the ceramic and steel series of reliefs were shown at the Knoedler Gallery in London in 1985 and the show sold out.
Frank Bosco is the founder of The New York/New Jersey Academy of Ceramic Art, Jersey City.
Above image: Frank Bosco with the first fruit of his ceramic collaboration with Frank Stella in his studio, 1984. Image courtesy of Frank Bosco.