A pioneering modernist in American art, Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is recognized primarily for his dynamic Futurist-inspired paintings of New York, in particular Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge. Through these majestic works—which emerged beginning in 1913—Stella established his reputation as a bold and innovative artist who was able to convey the excitement of the city and modern life. At the same time, Stella was compelled to express the powerful spiritual connection he felt with the natural world through his many paintings of flora and fauna. This was a subject the artist would pursue persistently through his entire career, becoming a prolific creator of lyrical and exuberant depictions of flowers, plants and birds. Stella saw a purity and beautiful mystery in nature and explored it with passion, combining realism and fantasy in a modernist idiom.
Joseph Stella: Visionary Nature will include approximately 50 paintings and works on paper drawn from American museums and private collections. This is the first major museum exhibition to focus exclusively on his flora and fauna subjects and will reveal the complexity and spirituality driving those works and the breadth of his artistic vision. The exhibition will dig deeper into the context for these subjects, looking for his inspirations, sources and at his own writings. Stella once wrote that his wish was “that my every working day might begin and end, as a good omen, with the light, gay painting of a flower.” This was not just a sentimental musing, but a small reflection of how profoundly he believed in the need for nature as spiritual sustenance.
Born in the southern Italian mountain village of Muro Lucano, Stella immigrated to New York in 1896 at eighteen. He briefly attended medical school before studying art with William Merritt Chase at the New York School of Art and Shinnecock Summer School of Art, from 1898 through 1901. Stella returned to Italy in 1909, beginning a lifetime of travel back and forth from his native country, as well as frequent visits to Paris—where he would absorb the influences of Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism—and to North Africa and Barbados. He would return to New York always, where he was viewed as a ground-breaking modernist. While Stella was enamored with industrial themes and the energy of New York, he was ambivalent about its dark power as well, writing of the city as “a monstrous dream…the skyscrapers like bandages stifling our breath, life shabby and mean, provincial, sometimes shadowy and hostile like an immense prison.” His nature subjects were one way in which he counteracted his extreme sense of claustrophobia, harkening back to the joy he felt in the light and open space of his native Southern Italian countryside. Stella would chase this feeling through his work for his entire career.
The exhibition will be organized into groupings that will reveal the myriad directions that his engagement with the genre took him through the years, beginning with his delicate renderings of botanical subjects in silverpoint and crayon. A technique he embraced in 1918, it recalls Renaissance masters and coincides with a renewed interest in the medium by American artists such as Marsden Hartley. Stella’s fantasy-packed floral, plant and bird canvases will follow, revealing the artist’s distinct vision and his intent in evoking in the viewer a sense of wonder and revelation. Stella’s complex allegorical and religious works—incorporating the Madonna and elaborate floral motifs—will come next and will demonstrate his devotion to 15th-century Italian painting (especially Giotto), and his familiarity with the aesthetics of Catholic holy-day processions and rituals. The culmination of the exhibition will be those works emerging from Stella’s trips to North Africa and Barbados in the late 1920s and 1930s.
The catalogue accompanying the exhibition will consist of multiple authors—including the exhibition’s curator, Audrey Lewis—and will delve deep into Stella’s art and his place in American art. Subjects to be explored are the connections between Stella and American modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, all of whom approached the tradition of still-life while adapting a modernist vocabulary. Stella’s religious paintings will be discussed in the context of his Catholic upbringing and the visual culture surrounding that religion. The artist’s travels to North Africa and Barbados will also be considered for the mix of the exotic and fantastic in the resulting works.