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Frank Stella on his artistic obsessions

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The 84-year-old abstract artist's giant star sculptures, now on display in Connecticut, exhibit a life of their own.

Video Transcript

- What you might call the signature works of the artist Frank Stella are on view this spring at a museum outside New York City. Reason enough for Martha Teichner to pay the artist a return visit.

FRANK STELLA: It was a pretty complete expression of the star, using the star as a motif.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Frank Stella's name means "star" in Italian. And for decades, that was the problem, the reason he stopped making them.

FRANK STELLA: When I started out, I didn't really want to hear about my name was Stella and I made a shape-- painting of a star.

MARTHA TEICHNER: But then, computer design technology came along. And 3D printing. Suddenly, the star had possibilities.

FRANK STELLA: It's pretty easy to put them together and turn them around and see how they look.

MARTHA TEICHNER: The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut has gathered a small galaxy of Frank Stella's stars, old and new. They may look really different from each other to you or me, but to the artist, they have something in common other than being stars.

FRANK STELLA: So they're surfaces to paint on. And I guess that's why I say, look, it's still about painting in a way.

MARTHA TEICHNER: It's always been about painting. Even six decades ago, when the paintings looked like this. In 1959, New York's Museum of Modern Art put some of them in a show and then bought one. Just out of Princeton in his early 20s, Stella was a star. He's been one ever since. Whether in the auction prices his work commands--

- At $24,500,000.

MARTHA TEICHNER: --or the accolades he's received.

- The 2009 National Medal of Arts to Frank Stella.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Frank Stella is recognized among America's greatest living artists. According to the "New Yorker", he is to abstract art what Bob Dylan is to music. Those painted surfaces Stella talks about? They've changed a lot over the years, morphing into giant collages that turned into sculpture and then headed in the direction of architecture.

Why abstraction versus figurative?

FRANK STELLA: Because I didn't like people that much.

[LAUGHTER]

MARTHA TEICHNER: Really?

FRANK STELLA: Yeah, I mean, you know, everybody was doing that. I didn't want to spend a lot of time drawing from the model. You know, when you see that poor girl sitting up there on the chair after she has to take off her bathrobe and everything, it's pretty pitiful.

[LAUGHTER]

MARTHA TEICHNER: As Stella pushed the boundaries of abstraction, along the way he developed a few artistic obsessions. It's been 20-something years since Frank Stella became fascinated with the idea of turning smoke rings into art. That's how we started our story when "Sunday Morning" profiled him in 2007. I couldn't resist showing it again.

In some ways, this reminds me of the smoke rings, the way they travel.

FRANK STELLA: That's what they are.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Those are smoke rings?

FRANK STELLA: Yeah, yeah.

MARTHA TEICHNER: But 14 years later, they've evolved. They're free-floating, three dimensional, made out of slick, painted fiberglass or aluminum tubing. This is called fluid motion. It even looks huge in Frank Stella's airplane hangar-sized studio in upstate New York, which resembles a meander through his brain at various points in his career.

FRANK STELLA: I guess you'd say I'm restless up to a point, yeah. I can't help that.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Still?

FRANK STELLA: Yes.

MARTHA TEICHNER: At 84, he's still tinkering with the forms that interest him.

FRANK STELLA: We call that a puff star. That's in carbon fiber.

MARTHA TEICHNER: It allows it to be curved.

FRANK STELLA: Yeah. That's what makes it expensive.

[LAUGHTER]

MARTHA TEICHNER: These models only hint at their full size versions. This looks like it's coming after me.

FRANK STELLA: Yes, but it's contained in here quite a bit. So it is looming, as they say.

MARTHA TEICHNER: It certainly is. This one in the show at the Aldrich is 21 feet in all directions.

FRANK STELLA: I just really like the feeling of the carbon fiber and the detail of what it actually looks like. The people who did the carbon fiber, they do work for Formula One.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Yes, Formula One race cars. Were you happy with these results?

FRANK STELLA: Are you kidding? Actually beyond my imagination.

MARTHA TEICHNER: That's saying something for a man perpetually doing battle with what he sees as problems.

FRANK STELLA: Outside, you don't know what's going to happen. I mean, you know, mother nature is quite difficult competitor.

MARTHA TEICHNER: It's raining.

FRANK STELLA: Yeah.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Frank Stella, who spent a lifetime keeping the human form out of his work, admits that humanity has crept in anyway.

FRANK STELLA: And they feel quite comfortable here. So--

MARTHA TEICHNER: They feel comfortable?

FRANK STELLA: Comfortable, yeah.

MARTHA TEICHNER: You talk about them like they're people.

FRANK STELLA: Well, they are. You know, I mean, they have to have a certain kind of life of their own and a presence of their own. They seem happy here.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Does that mean Frank Stella has mellowed? That he's any less curmudgeonly about the arc of his long, and I'll say it, stellar career? Hardly.

FRANK STELLA: You know, I went from being a young artist to a middle-aged artist to a mature artist. And now I'm a, is he still alive artist.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Do you have any sense of what you'd like your legacy to be?

FRANK STELLA: Uh-uh. I don't. I'm not a legacy person.

MARTHA TEICHNER: Ever the contrarian, he'd rather just hit rewind.

FRANK STELLA: It would be probably a lot more satisfying to people if I started out like this and then ended up with the black painting. If you played my career back the other way, people would say, oh, look how fantastic he ended up with those beautiful paintings at the end.