Skip to content ↓

Two Stella works join MIT art collection

"Imagine a painting that combines the pointed pictorial drama of Picasso's Night Fishing at Antibes (1939), the expansive, aquatic ease of Matisse's Oceania, the Sea (1946), and the continuous coloristic curve of Stella's dome in [Toronto's] Princess of Wales Theater (1993)," wrote Robert K. Wallace of a dramatic 1994 artwork by renowned artist Frank Stella.

Now imagine this artwork covering the walls of an MIT conference room.

The piece, Loohooloo (1994) is a recent work by Mr. Stella, a leading figure in the minimal art movement. It is also one of two colorful large-scale works by the artist that have recently been sited at MIT, thanks to the generosity of Elliot K. Wolk '57, an art collector with a particular interest in Stella works. The playfully named piece is being installed on the four walls of a specially constructed conference room in the Department of Architecture. The other sculptural work, Heads or Tails (1988), was installed in October at the Sloan School of Management's new Tang Center.

Mr. Stella will visit MIT on Monday, Nov. 6, to attend the dedication of Loohooloo. At 6pm in Rm10-250, he will present a discussion and slides of his recent work. The talk is free and open to the public.

Evoking aquatic motifs and imaginary places, Loohooloo is just over 10 feet high and 97 feet long, and it projects up to 46 inches from the wall. The wrap-around installation, an acrylic on fiberglass, is named for a night fishing scene depicted by Herman Melville in his novel Omoo, which takes place in 1847 in Oceania on the coral reefs of a fictional site, Loohooloo.

In the novel, native fishermen spear-fish by torchlight on the coral reefs, hurling their spears into the breaking waves while behind them "the darkness of sky and water was streaked with a long, misty line of foam." Loohooloo does not depict these fictional actions in a literal way, says Professor Wallace, a faculty member at Northern Kentucky University who has studied the artist's work and its links to the writings of Melville. Rather, he writes, its painted surfaces signify "liquid motion, expansive space and continuous action," which "create comparable pictorial sensations."

"A viewer can enjoy this painting without knowing anything about Stella, Melville, Matisse or Picasso," Professor Wallace continued. "Its liquid images engage the eye as fluidly as the liquid syllables of Loohooloo lave the ear," while its abstract action "inspires a fluid reverie as the eye rides a continuous curve, ten feet high, around the room."

"Stella has frequently blurred the boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture," said Professor William J. Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, commenting on Loohooloo. "This walk-in, three-dimensional, exuberantly painted piece carries to a new stage his investigation of the contested and ambiguous ground between these traditional categories. It immerses you in painted forms to create a space like no other that I know." WORK IN TANG CENTER

At the Tang Center, it's nearly impossible for visitors to miss Heads or Tails as they walk through the Amherst Street entrance. Though smaller than Loohooloo, it also makes colorful aquatic references. An acrylic and enamel on aluminum, Heads or Tails is one of a series of 138 designs inspired by Melville's classic, Moby Dick. Each of the pieces in the series corresponds to a chapter in the novel; Heads or Tails corresponds to Chapter 90, in which Melville describes the head and tail of the great whale.

While one of the three main pieces of Heads or Tails is obviously a tail-like shape, the other forms, mounted higher, are more abstract. "These two pieces are not literal equivalents, but each is made to function as a whale's head," Professor Wallace wrote. But he cautions the viewer against making a strict connection between the forms and the descriptions in the novel: "Stella invites us to make our own association with the pieces." Since 1985, Mr. Stella has completed 137 of the works in the Moby Dick series; the final one is currently in production.

Both Heads or Tails and Loohooloo are extended loans and within five years will be gifts to the Institute from Mr. Wolk, a member of the Council for the Arts at MIT. "Elliot's generosity is appreciated because not only did he designate it for the Tang Center lobby, but he gave us an inspiring piece that should set the mood for creativity, energy and vividness at Sloan," said Professor Glen Urban, dean of the Sloan School of Management, who says he visits Heads or Tails each day for uplift. "This is one of the best sculptures Stella has done, and he's one of the best contemporary sculptors alive," continued Professor Urban, who is also a sculptor.

Visitors can also walk on the artwork at the Tang Center. New York sculptor Jackie Ferrara created the abstract, geometric design for the flooring on the entrance level and first floor in a project which was funded through MIT's "one percent for art" policy. This policy ensures that a share of building or renovation costs is set aside for art commissioned for the site. "The two artworks provide an interesting contrast," noted Susan Personette, the Physical Plant project manager. "The Ferrara is an orderly, quiet and controlled piece, very much designed for this space, while the Stella is energetic, lively and independent."

One can virtually "walk through" the new architecture conference room via an MPEG video which shows the conference room and Loohooloo, surrounding community and gallery space, and headquarters areas for the Department of Architecture and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The video is on the World Wide Web at (1.9M, external viewer required).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 1, 1995.

Related Topics

More MIT News