In 1997, The University of Houston commissioned Euphonia, one of its largest immersive works on its campus at The Moores Opera House. The vaulted, large-scale installation spans three areas: the atmospheric ceiling of the lobby, a large-scale triptych on the mezzanine level, and high up within the ceiling of the opera house itself. The overall work is a collection of abstract images on canvas, saturated with bold colors, hard line illustration like gestures, and what artist Frank Stella refers to as “smoke rings,” which drift throughout its inner harmony. The massive work is hidden within Houston’s public art realm, but it’s certainly of the few works of its scale and involvement in the country and within the series.
Frank Stella’s body of work, “Imaginary Places,” was influenced by the book The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Canadian author Alberto Manguel and Italian historian Gianni Guadalupi. From 1994 until 2004, Stella produced a series of works themed around Manguel and Guadalupi’s book and played within his Maximalist period. The series used telescoping images, bending grids, and computer-based drawings and pulled sources from a variety of textures and surfaces. Stella’s history has shown just how much the artists pulls from his influences, building upon the previous paintings and sculptures before like a layer cake. Euphonia is one of the largest installations and paintings Stella recalls creating, and he created it almost immediately after his commission for the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. The Opera House installation was a staggering seven months project and involved close to a dozen young working artists and assistants. The project landed in around $1.5 million dollars and is by far one of Houston’s most astounding and impressive public works ever commissioned.
On the evening of Feb. 9, The University of Houston celebrated the 20th anniversary of Euphonia and the 50th anniversary of UH’s public art program. The evening started with a private reception and was followed by a panel discussion with Stella; the Museum of Fine Art’s contemporary curator, Alison de Lima Greene; Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses; and Don Bacigalupi, former director of Blaffer Museum and president of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
Free Press Houston was able to talk with Frank Stella in person during the event to discuss his methods within his controlled chaos and his ideology within the omniscient environmental installation made for Houston.
Free Press Houston: Thank you so much for making the time to talk with us Mr. Stella. On the realm of public art and your past works, you have always pulled from influences, from your environment, and worked from happenings that surrounded you. Did you feel as though you were working from your surroundings of Houston, Texas, and the University here while creating the work Euphonia? Would you say, rather, that it is more soundly seated in Manuel’s and Gaudalupi’s book and the influence to your series “Imaginary Places”?
Frank Stella: I think that it is a pretty good example of imaginary places being really adaptable and flexible. I feel it is an imaginative and decorative play within the space. The building is severe in some ways, and it has such a specific purpose, the fact that you can create movement and a certain lightness. I think that what the work does best of all, is to reflect what is going on underneath it. If the people are happy with what is happening, what is going on, and they are moving around the space, that is a success. In plain english, if they are enjoying themselves, there is something about what is happening with the people and what is happening above them that creates a kind of fusion.
FPH: Did you find this project in particular to be collaborative?
Stella: Oh yes, of course it is pretty collaborative! It’s really because the project became so big. We had done a somewhat similar project in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre where we worked with several people and we brought them here. When we got to Houston, we did not have enough people, for the previous project was smaller in scope. We had to deal with this, and we knew we could do it, and so we started employing people here. We gathered artists and students and created a sort of open project. We rented a space here in Houston and worked here. We worked as communal conductors. We worked simultaneously. It was happening very well. Yes, Euphonia had its challenges for us all. The architecture made it very difficult, and to be working at such distance. It wasn’t at all easy to control, and together we had to make it work. Flat surfaces are very helpful! Form follows function. As the artist, you know that in the end, it’s not for you.
Stella goes on to address other people in the room:
Stella: Revisiting the work, I know it pretty well. I only need to take five minutes to look at it. I know all the good spots to be looking! For the amount of times that one spends looking at things, think of all the times people don’t! With smartphones today, I’m not sure people look at anything really. Seeing this piece again after twenty years, I recall being worried to be working at that height and to make sure it was installed properly and not having it fall down is all I really cared about. To see it peel off would have been horrible. I know everyone loves Leonardo Da Vinci, but I didn’t want it to be another last supper coming down on top of everyone. Working within the comfortable confines of your studio is great.
However, with these sorts of projects you have to do it far away, and far from home, and then walk away from it forever. I’m not gonna go climb back up there and paint out the lower right hand corner or some part that doesn’t look so good. It’s just not available for me to do that, so it makes it tough to be working that way, at a distance. I can only hope for the best. It was very hard to let it find a life on its own. Then you fear to make it overdone. When you walk away from a project like this you are happy, but it is also to the artist, like driving off a cliff! I enjoyed working in Houston very much. We had a good rhythm to be part of. In the North Eastern corridor of the US, there is a concentration of population and the economy. There are also a lot of competing institutions overwhelmed with great art. It can be pretty tough. There has always been an interest with artists to do things here in Texas. Texas is a big state, right? You have the cities, you have the universities, and you have the deep pockets. There is more opportunities, and one feels so relaxed. so there isn’t as much pressure, and you don’t feel under the gun so much.
With Euphonia, It doesn’t feel like it has been twenty years ago. The piece doesn’t look twenty years older. I look twenty years older, but the work still stands up on its own today.