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Remembering minimalist painter and sculptor Frank Stella

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we remember the artist Frank Stella, whose work was regarded as revolutionary. He died of lymphoma Saturday. He was 87. His New York Times obituary describes him as, quote, "a dominant figure in post-war American art, a restless, relentless innovator, whose explorations of color and form made him an outsized presence, endlessly discussed and constantly on exhibit," unquote.

Stella is considered one of the fathers of the minimalist art of the 1960s. His early revolutionary work in the late '50s was a series of Black Paintings, black stripes separated with thin stripes of blank white canvas. The austerity of those paintings contrasted with the bold brush strokes and drips of abstract expressionism. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl described Stella's impact on abstract expressionism as, quote, "something like Dylan's on music and Warhol's on more or less everything," unquote.

In the '60s, Stella moved on to geometrical paintings in vivid contrasting colors. His work continued to evolve with paintings and abstract sculptures on a large scale. He sometimes used computer technology to generate images that he incorporated into his work. Stella was also admired for his ideas about art. In the mid-'80s, he gave the prestigious Norton lectures at Harvard University. Later we'll hear an interview I recorded with Frank Stella in 2000. Let's start with our first interview from 1985. In the first answer, he refers to Emile de Antonio, who made the 1972 documentary "Painters Painting."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: The Black Paintings were very controversial. Emile de Antonio, who had one of your early Black Paintings tells a story of that...

FRANK STELLA: And sold it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, did he? Well, he tells a story of how a couple of friends came over, saw the Black Painting, and one of them threw some recently acquired ether on it, and the other poured her drink over it because they thought it was some kind of joke or something.

STELLA: Well, or an affront, yes. That happened. I mean, I guess they were - you know, I guess they struck some people as being aggressively simple. I mean, I think that it's possible to see them or it was possible then, and maybe even now, to see them as childlike or maybe even naive. But to tell you the truth, I mean, I - when I look at them, I don't see them that way. I mean, you have to really force it to see them. I mean, they seem pretty straightforward paintings. It's not so clear to me that if you didn't know, what the paintings were about and who did them, and I include myself in this, that you could tell that they were either from someone's early work or later work or who or when they were made. I mean, it's not manifestly clear looking at those paintings that those are the paintings of a young man, be he good or bad.

GROSS: When you were doing the Black Paintings, were you uninterested in color at the time?

STELLA: Well, you know, I was really learning how to paint, and I was really beginning. So I didn't have any particular stake in color one way or the other. To me, the Black Paintings were, you know, obviously exciting. And they were colorful. They were plenty colorful enough to me. I mean, it really was a question of dealing with what I had. I mean, I had arrived at the Black Paintings obviously by painting black over what I had been working on. But it seemed to provide something something special, and it was quite colorful to me. I mean, I didn't think of it as a particularly negative statement about color.

GROSS: When did you know that you wanted to start working with really brash colors?

STELLA: Well, my father said to me, you know, people -you need color in order to sell paintings.

(LAUGHTER)

STELLA: And when he said that, I started thinking about, you know, you can't - first I had made black paintings and then aluminum and then copper. And then I started to think about color. And the only - as soon as he said that, the idea popped into my head that I could make paintings, pretty much striped paintings, pretty much the same way I was making them. And I - instead of using color, I'd use something nearly as neutral as color, which would be just use it as it came out of the can. Like, I thought of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet and just using those colors.

GROSS: What kind of paints have you used for your color paintings?

STELLA: Well, I've used all kinds, but I mean, I find it very hard to restrict myself to what are called artists' colors. I mean, I use a lot of commercial paint, and maybe it's just a habit that I picked up from working as a house painter, or I'm not sure exactly why. But I like commercial paints largely because they make - they combine sort of easily. And it changes the quality of the color when - fine art pigments are more intense in terms of color because they actually have more color in them, more pigment. They have less inert matter in them. And - but it's nice to see a cheap red because you sense something cheap about it when I like to play a cheap red off against an expensive red. Somehow it always sort of is interesting, at least to me anyway.

GROSS: So you must mix your colors like people in paint stores do? You take big cans and you shake them up a lot, right? It's not like working on a palette, which is the traditional way of doing it.

STELLA: Right, right. Yeah. I mean, Robert Rauschenberg has said the whole world is his palette, but I used my whole studio floor as the palette. But basically, yeah. It's a big palette. You go from can to can, bucket to bucket. I mean, I'm fairly loose with the paint. And I don't mind if I sort of, you know, waste a lot of paint.

GROSS: Can you tell us how you started getting interested in geometric form as the subject matter for your paintings?

STELLA: You know, I never thought about that very much. I mean, when I was in school, particularly at Philips Academy. I mean, we had a studio course, and we studied art history. And I mean, when I saw Mondrian, and then when I saw some abstract painting in the gallery, in the Addison Gallery, the idea appealed to me immensely. I mean, it was a tremendous relief to think of the square as subject matter. I mean, it just seemed to me wonderful that I could paint squares, while the guy next to me was painting a figure. I mean, he was painting his sister, I could be painting another square. I mean, it was easy to paint a square, and I liked doing it besides. I mean, it just seemed, the big advantage was that I would be able to work sort of really directly on pictorial problems without worrying about figurative technique.

I mean, I simply didn't have to worry about those kind of problems. I could really worry about getting a whole picture, making a painting work in sort of general terms and which I think are still the most important terms - the sense I could deal right away with a sense of wholeness and a sense of accomplishment. I mean, maybe the paintings weren't great, but they were accomplished paintings in the sense that they were coherent and whole right from the beginning.

GROSS: Painting sometimes becomes decoration when, you know, when it's purchased to put on your wall in the living room. What do you think of painting as decoration? I know it's a thought that upsets a lot of artists and that other artists find perfectly pleasing.

STELLA: Well, I mean, the aim of art is to be more than decoration. I mean, if it's used decoratively, what can you say? I mean, if somebody likes something, you can't stop them from buying it, and if they decide that they really bought your purple picture because they want to hang it on their green wall, you've had it. I mean, it's going to hang on their green wall for a while. But I don't think that that's a really serious problem. I mean, if the painting will find its way to its home one way or the other, eventually, and, you know, if it's a good enough painting, it'll live through its life on the green wall and come to rise above it.

GROSS: You've never been a realist painter. Could you do a realist rendering if you wanted to? I mean, do you have the skill for that?

STELLA: No. Truly if I had to draw a picture now of Mickey Mouse, I would fail.

GROSS: Did that ever upset you when you wanted to become an artist? Did you ever think that someone was going to come in and test you and say, hey, we love your work, but prove to us that that you can really, you know, do a rendering?

STELLA: No, it never crossed my mind. I mean, I could see - I mean, I never had - I don't - I - to this day, I don't understand what illustration has to do with making art. It just - you know, there doesn't seem to be any point to it for me. I mean - and if I - you know, I'm sure that if I had to have people in my paintings, I'd figure out a way to put them in.

GROSS: A lot of modern art has sought after originality, to try something new, to have a breakthrough concept or something. Do you think that we put too much of a premium on originality in art? How valuable do you think that is?

STELLA: I mean, if it's really original, it's great. You know, the big thing in the critical literature is to make a distinction between novelty and originality. It's hard to know what's original. I don't think that you can find too many examples of originality. I mean, usually what we mean in art by originality is doing something first. And in a sense, Picasso was certainly a very original painter. If he wasn't the first to make cubist pictures, I mean, he was certainly the first to make open sculpture. And, I mean, so he was a contributor on a lot of levels on a lot of ideas that he - that were certainly around. They weren't necessarily absolutely his original ideas, but he gave them form, the first form that really sprung them loose in the world. And so there are original people like that, original people who do that kind of original work. And I think that that kind of work is rightly prized because it is relatively rare.

GROSS: There's an image of the artist as being heroic and romantic. And I think it's an image that was especially expressed through the work of the abstract expressionists and through the way some of them lived their lives. What do you think of that notion of the artist as the hero or the romantic?

STELLA: You know, I don't have much interest in that. I mean, I don't feel that artistic. I mean, I feel like a painter when I'm working on the problem of making a painting. But, you know, it's not, I mean, I don't really - I guess I have a slightly - or quite a strong anti-romantic bias, I guess.

GROSS: Why do you think you have that?

STELLA: Well, I mean, I don't like to - I mean, I find it offensive to think of myself as an artist, I mean, or an artistic personality. I mean, if someone said, well, you have some kind of sensitivity that other people don't have, it seems to be manifestly untrue. I mean, the only thing that I have is the will to, you know, make paintings. I mean, that's why I want to use what I know, to make paintings, or what I'm able to understand to make paintings.

GROSS: Frank Stella recorded in 1985. He died Saturday. I spoke with him again in 2000. We'll hear that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our remembrance of Frank Stella. The second time I spoke with him was in 2000. At the time, he was creating large, vividly colored sculptures that sharply contrasted with the black canvases that made him famous and controversial in the '50s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Your work has changed so much since the late '50s when the public became aware of your work. And you first became known for your black-striped paintings, and these were paintings that helped launch the minimalist movement. Then you did color paintings that often used very geometrical forms. And then eventually, your work became, like, wildly colored with drips and brush strokes. And your work became more sculptural with a lot of, like, edges, and you started working with hard materials like metal. Do you feel that by starting with all-black and then by adding color and then adding more kind of wild elements to it that you stripped things down to a basic vocabulary of yours and then kind of added things to that vocabulary and built things up again?

STELLA: I suppose. I mean, you can imagine, I guess, a life story anyway you want. I mean, it starts with a lot of youthful enthusiasm and ends with mature wisdom, which is a simplification of anything happens. Or you can start out as a sort of aggressive, hard-nosed kind of arrogant youth and pair everything down and dare everybody to say, you know, that you can't get it all before you even know what it's all about.

GROSS: Did you feel like your early black canvases were a dare?

STELLA: They were, yes. I think they were. I mean, they were pretty aggressive, yeah. But, I mean, I was - but I felt very confident about them, yeah.

GROSS: What did you think were some of the most interesting on-track and off-track pieces of art criticism about your early work?

STELLA: Well, I had a hard time with criticism because, you know, I really liked what I did. And I was interested in painting, and I had a kind of critical attitude towards painting, but the writing about it was really a little bit beyond me. I mean, I was a relatively unsophisticated person in that way. I mean, I really wasn't interested in philosophy or, you know, in the notion that you could appeal to smart people by saying smart things about painting. I just wanted to make paintings that I liked. I didn't care if smart people liked them, actually, (laughter) unfortunately. But, you know, to me criticism is like - I don't know - a sport or entertainment or something. It's not, unfortunately, really serious for me.

GROSS: Artist Frank Stella is my guest. What was the impact on you to become famous and controversial when you were in your 20s and just starting off as a painter?

STELLA: Actually, the thing about being famous, it never - I wasn't worried about it because the art world was a much smaller place and I had not much interest in fame. I liked other artists who were famous, and I liked - but I really wanted more than anything to make art that was as good as the good artists were making. I wanted to make art that someday - and I didn't expect it to be that way right away - would be as good as de Kooning, or Klein, or Newman, or Pollock or Rothko. That was - they were my heroes and I wanted to make art that was as good as that. All I cared about was whether if you put one of my paintings next to a Rothko, it looked OK. That's what I wanted. Actually, I don't know what fame is, really. But, I mean, that was what I was interested in.

GROSS: When you were in your 20s, in the 1950s, it was a period when some of the very famous artists like Pollock were famous not only for their work but for their lifestyle. You know, a kind of Bohemian lifestyle...

STELLA: Yeah. That's, like, a big deal about...

GROSS: ...A lot of drinking and everything.

STELLA: Right, right, right. Yeah.

GROSS: You know, and some people in their attempt to be artists would emulate the lifestyle as well. Did that lifestyle mean anything to you? Is it...

STELLA: No, it didn't mean much, largely because I was so young and it was just very hard to, you know, keep yourself together - I mean to keep working, to get money, to do whatever you have to do. I mean, I didn't really actually have that much time to get drunk (laughter).

GROSS: You grew up in, I think, a pretty middle-class family?

STELLA: Yes, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Your father was a doctor, a gynecologist. And apparently, he worked as a house painter...

STELLA: Yes.

GROSS: ...During the depression to put himself through college.

STELLA: Yes.

GROSS: And from what I've read, it sounds like occasionally, he'd, like, repaint the house you lived in.

STELLA: Yes, yes. Yeah.

GROSS: And you'd help him paint it.

STELLA: I was in paint all my life, yes. Yeah.

GROSS: Did you enjoy the feel of house paint or the colors of house paint?

STELLA: Yes, I did. I liked it. I mean, I always liked paint - the physicality of it, yeah. It was never a problem for me. My mother was an artist, too, and she painted with oil, and my father painted with house paint. So I had paint pretty well covered. When I first saw de Kooning and Kline, say, for example, and even Pollock, I knew right away how it was done. I mean, it didn't - it wasn't a problem for me about how to make those kind of paintings.

GROSS: And did you know that more from house paint than anything else?

STELLA: Yes, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What's the...

STELLA: And I knew it from painting houses, and I mean, even at the time that Pollock was doing it, I mean, there's a tradition for decorating and dripping paint on floors and on furniture and stuff. So, I mean, it's been around. I mean, it just hadn't been in the art world (laughter).

GROSS: So what connection did you see between, you know, the house painting and the Pollocks?

STELLA: Well, I thought, you know, painting a wall is a big physical expanse. You do it, and I could see most of the time that if you stop halfway through, where you were painting your wall, it would be a lot more interesting, but, you know, no one's going to let you stop...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STELLA: ...And sort of have it half white and half red. But it was beautiful, and so I liked doing it. And I could easily see that you could make paintings like that.

GROSS: How did you get from, you know, painting walls to actually painting canvases?

STELLA: Well, I mean, I painted all my way through school. I mean, I went to Philips Academy in Andover and then I took art classes. And then when I was at Princeton, we had art teachers, you know, sort of not - and I took classes there. And I just, you know, I was around the studios, as it were.

GROSS: Yet the impression I get from reading interviews with you is that you never studied the technique of representational art.

STELLA: That's true. When I was at Philips Academy, you had to - there was an introductory course which consisted to the arts, to fine art. And that consisted of an art history course and a studio course. It was a combination. And so you went to art history lectures, and then you went to the studio and you made paintings. And one of the prerequisites in the painting course, the first thing was a kind of motif. So you had to make a painting of a still life. You know, there was something set up. And that was a requirement. And then you went on from there. And so I didn't really like it and everything, and we had a class, and they've started showing us about Seurat and neoimpressionism and things like that.

And then I said to myself, oh, that's, you know, that's kind of obvious. I ran downstairs to do my painting, and I just made it all splotches. So I made a table with splotches, a cylinder with splotches, some ivy with splotches. And it all held together. It looked sort of like a painting, and everyone else was doing the modeling and the light and shadow and having a wonderful time doing what they were doing. But I was done, and I showed it to Pat Morgan, and he said, all right, right. And he let me go, and from there on, I just did whatever I wanted. I didn't have to do any more representational art.

GROSS: So how much did you actually do before abandoning it?

STELLA: Well, I did about 20 minutes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How old were you?

STELLA: I was probably 15.

GROSS: And I'm surprised that your teacher just kind of allowed you to dismiss the technique like that.

STELLA: Look, I was a wise guy. But you know, a lot of teachers have to deal with kids who are wise guys. I mean, but if you know what you're doing, I mean, it's like, you know, what are you going to do? You're the tennis coach, and the kid comes in and he hits the ball, 90, 80, 90 miles an hour. And no matter what you do, he hits it back. You know, you can say, well, that's not exactly the right way to do it, and you can talk to him, but you're not going to tell him to forget it. I mean, you know, either you can hit the ball or you can't.

GROSS: No, no, what was it that made you realize that you just weren't about representational art? Was it a technical problem or or just like an aesthetic lack of interest?

STELLA: No, I mean - I had representational art on my window. My mother painted Santa Claus on there, and she was always making paints. I saw representational art all the time. I wasn't very moved by it, but when I saw magazine reproductions of Franz Kline and when I saw the Pollock paintings and Hans Hofmann paintings in Patrick Morgan's house, and in the gallery at the Addison Gallery, I mean, I was overwhelmed by that. I mean, I just loved them. And I wanted to make paintings like that. And I just wasn't going to let anything keep me from making paintings like that right away. I wasn't going to wait, you know, 10 years and then make an abstract painting

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with painter and sculptor Frank Stella in 2000. We'll hear more of the interview after a break as we continue our remembrance of Stella. He died Saturday. We'll also feature an interview with rock and roll guitarist Duane Eddy, who died last week, and hear Maureen Corrigan's review of Colm Toibin's sequel to his novel "Brooklyn." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SUE'S CHANGES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering painter and sculptor Frank Stella. He died Saturday of lymphoma. He was 87. He's famous for his revolutionary Black Paintings and was known as one of the fathers of minimalist art. But his art kept changing over the years, including geometric paintings with bold, contrasting colors and, later, large, colorful, abstract sculptures. That was the kind of work he was doing when I spoke with him the second time in 2000. Let's get back to that interview.

Was there ever a point in your life where you said to yourself, I wish that I had studied representational technique and that I had more of that technique available to me?

STELLA: You know, I didn't understand representational painting very much, and I probably wouldn't understand representational technique up to a point. But when I - you know, maybe 30 years later, when I saw in the Capitol Line Museum Caravaggio's "St. John The Baptist," "The Young St. John The Baptist," it really knocked me out, and I really liked it, and it was very real. And the realist technique - I should have said, oh, my God, but I can't do this, and I should have been very worried about it. But actually, the effect was the opposite. It was a kind of incredible euphoria about saying, you know, actually, that's it. You know, that's what painting is about.

And I realized that Caravaggio's success and what made this painting beautiful, which was its sense of being very real, being very physically present, had to do with the fact not - had actually nothing to do with the technique but with the fact that Caravaggio worked very hard at painting and that he had wanted to make a painting. And once I realized that, you know, the goal is what counts - what you intend to do, what you want to make - making things pictorial is what's important. The technique you use to make the pictoriality manifest, to make it successful, is - that doesn't really matter. You know, you get the job done whichever way you can. They never had a problem in the caves in Alaska, wherever -Altamira. They got the job done.

GROSS: When you were a student, were you ever afraid that a teacher would think or fellow students would think that you were a fraud or something because you had skipped that whole step in the evolution of mastering representation?

STELLA: Well, fortunately, I wasn't a particularly successful student. So all of the other students were more successful or seemed better at it. But I wasn't worried. I mean, the issue of being a fraud - you know, that just never came up because, I mean, I worked - you know, I was in the studio every day. I was there two or three hours a day. All the other students who were better and had this kind of technique - like, I never saw them there. I mean, they came for one or two hours a week. I was there nine or 10 hours a week. So, you know, I mean, I know who's there and who's not. It doesn't matter what the technique is. It's what the effort is that goes into making art.

GROSS: Have you ever been through a period where you felt that you were at an artistic dead end and you knew that a series you were working on or a direction you were exploring was finished and you didn't know where you were heading yet?

STELLA: A couple of times, yeah.

GROSS: What did you do during that interim where you weren't sure what was next but you knew what you had been doing was finished?

STELLA: I pretended it wasn't a problem.

GROSS: Why? Why pretend? Was that for your own benefit...

STELLA: Well, yes.

GROSS: ...Or so the people around you wouldn't lose confidence?

STELLA: Right, for everybody. Yes. Yeah. Art is a little bit like a performing art. And if performers, athletes or singers or performers, whatever it is - if you communicate to those around you or outside of you a lack of confidence, you might just as well be dead. They thrive on your confidence.

GROSS: So you got to keep that to yourself if there's any doubt.

STELLA: Yes. It's better. Yeah. One thing I learned early on was never to - no matter how bad my painting was or - never to say anything bad about my own work.

GROSS: How'd you learn that?

STELLA: Because you - say you make a casual remark to a friend about you don't like this part of your painting, some little, trivial thing. And then, you know, a couple of weeks later, you'll hear from a museum director that that painting is a complete failure.

GROSS: Well, there's also a real stock market factor in the art - in arts, you know, where, like, somebody's stock, the actual price of their paintings fluctuates, goes up and down over the course of their career depending on, I guess, a lot of different variables. Has that been something that's kind of - that you found more amusing or disturbing, that kind of stock market fluctuation?

STELLA: No. It's just a reality, and it's a struggle. I mean, I've been up and down and up and down, and it's still the same. It hasn't actually really changed very much for me. It's still very hard to keep it all together. You know, I could blame myself, I suppose, you know, if I didn't blow so much money or if I didn't spend so much money making art. But in order to do what I want to do, which is basically make art, it's a struggle to raise the money, really, to pay my own way without a patron. It's quite hard.

GROSS: I want to, if it's OK with you, ask you about your finger.

STELLA: Yeah, it's OK. Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: You have one finger that...

STELLA: Yeah. I have a crushed left hand. Yeah. I have - one finger is half, and the - a couple of the other fingers are damaged. Yeah. It's a crush injury from when I was 10 years old.

GROSS: What happened?

STELLA: A concrete urn in the yard was toppled over onto my hand. That's all. It was a crush injury.

GROSS: And were the parts of your finger amputated on the spot, or was that done surgically afterwards, or...

STELLA: No. Well, when it's crushed, it turns black. I mean, eventually, they had to cut it off. Yeah. I went to the hospital. Yeah.

GROSS: And you work - you do a lot of physical work. It's never interfered with it.

STELLA: Yeah. But I'm right-handed, so it's not...

GROSS: And it's your left hand that was crushed.

STELLA: Yeah.

GROSS: So you're OK with that.

STELLA: It's not a problem.

GROSS: And I think - did that get you out of the military?

STELLA: Actually, indirectly, it did. Yeah. And I wasn't thinking about it, but there was a turning point in my artistic career because when I left school, when I graduated from Princeton, I went to New York and took a loft and started painting. And I wasn't really that aggressive about being a painter or being an artist, but I did it because I had to go - in that September to go home to Boston to take a physical examination we still had for the draft. And I expected to be drafted, so I thought, well, you know, this is just dead time. I'll paint for a while and then go in the Army, and then I'll worry about my career when I get out after I do my military service.

And that really was the only thought that I had. I mean, it wasn't complicated, and it wasn't conflicted or anything. I mean, I was just painting and living in New York with my friends, meeting people and making paintings, and then I went to take my physical examination. And I really want to go in the Army. So I did all the things. I wet my bed. I sucked my thumb. They just laughed at me. They stamped all my papers. And then the last guy - there were three doctors in a row on the tabl. And the guy looked at me, and he said, let me see your left hand. And I said, yes, sir. And he picked up an envelope, and he held out the envelope to me. He said, put this between your thumb and your index finger. And I said, yes, sir - your third finger, your fourth finger, your little finger. And I said, yes, sir.

He said, you know, son, you have faulty opposition. And I said, yes, sir. And he said, you don't want to go in the Army; do you? And I said, no, sir, which I think is not exactly what I should have said. And he said, you know - he said, you went to Princeton; didn't you? And I said, yes, sir. He said, I don't think you'd make a very good soldier anyway. And he picked up the other thing and he stamped it, and I was out.

GROSS: How did you feel?

STELLA: Well, I felt weird, actually. I mean, I was happy not to be in the Army. And then I suddenly realized that I was going to go back to New York, to my studio. I didn't have a career ahead of me in the Army. They kept telling me my tour of duty would be in West Germany or Korea. And I wasn't sure which fabulous place I wanted to go to, but I had these fantasies of going on tour. I mean, the Army tour is a little bit different than my idea of touring. But anyway, I called up my father, and I said, gee, I'm sorry, Dad. I have bad news. I failed my physical examination. I won't be able to go in the Army. And he said, too bad. It would have made a man of you. And I said, well, I'm just going to go back to my studio. And that was it.

GROSS: Were there things you had to face in the studio that you didn't feel ready to face yet because you thought you were putting all of that off till after your tour of duty?

STELLA: You know, no. I don't know. I mean, I didn't - it wasn't a problem. I don't know. I just went back to my studio and kept on painting. You know, life at that age was nice. You know, New York was sort of relatively gentle there. I mean, there were artists around, and you could sort of bum around, and it was OK. You could manage.

GROSS: Do a lot of young artists want advice from you and...

STELLA: I don't see too many young artists. They don't - no. I haven't had anyone ask me for advice, actually. I don't think anyone has ever asked me for advice.

GROSS: How do you keep yourself isolated from that?

STELLA: I don't know. Maybe I just don't attract the kind of people that need advice. I don't know. I'm not sure.

GROSS: Well, Frank Stella, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

STELLA: Thank you. It was fun.

GROSS: Frank Stella recorded on Fresh Air in 2000. He died of lymphoma Saturday. He was 87. We have another remembrance coming up. Duane Eddy, one of the most influential early rock 'n' roll guitarists, died last week. We'll feature a 1988 interview with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUANE EDDY'S "THEME FOR SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.