Interviews

Frank Stella

View of “Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland,” 2016.

Frank Stella’s assemblage series “Polish Village,” 1970–74, is making its debut in Europe as part of the exhibition “Frank Stella and Synagogues of Historic Poland,” on view through June 20, 2016, at the POLIN Museum in Warsaw. Here Stella discusses the show as well as the genesis of the works, their exhibition history, and what it means to present his works in Poland, where the titular inspirational wooden synagogues once stood.

THIS SERIES has been exhibited before: at the Fort Worth Museum of Dallas in 1978, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987, and the Jewish Museum in New York in 1983, to name a few venues. This is the first time, though, that the works are being seen in Poland. This is worth noting only because the forty or so works in the series on display are based on photographs and drawings of wooden synagogues in eastern Poland. All of these buildings had been burned down by the Nazis. I came across the images in Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka’s book Wooden Synagogues (Arkady, 1959). The photographs and drawings from the book are part of the exhibition, as is a close-to-scale reconstruction of the roof and painted ceiling of a synagogue that once stood in the city of Gwoździec.

The carpentry of the synagogues is incredibly sophisticated on a formal level. The interlockingness—the complex geometric connectedness of each part of the building, which is visible in the photographs—really attracted me. My own works for the series began as simple forms on a flat plane. In the end, the final works are a kind of projected relief, if you hang them on the wall, or architecture models if you lay them on the ground. This was the first time, I suppose, that I directly dealt with relief.

Interestingly, the constructivist line in modernism in the early twentieth century can roughly be traced from Moscow to Berlin via Warsaw; this is mirrored in reverse by the path of the Nazis that led to the destruction of these wooden synagogues. The memory of the death of constructivism as well as the synagogues is embedded in the works.

The works weren’t really about the synagogues (any more than they were about constructivism), but that’s what they inevitably have to be about. You can’t get away from where the works came from. That is, my series wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the drawings I saw. Robert Rauschenberg once said that his paintings are an invitation to look somewhere else. You do what you can do and hope that people will look beyond the things themselves.

And I don’t know about the exhibition in Poland. People seem to like it, which I think is nice. It’s tough in a way—the work is in a museum of the history of Polish Jews, and I’m not Jewish and I’m not part of that history. But the synagogues are part of the history of art. And so it’s inevitable that you react to that.

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