Can you tell a story without any characters?

That's a challenge artist Frank Stella decided to take on in the mid-1980s, and some of the results are on view in the Princeton University Art Museum's major exhibition "Frank Stella Unbound, Literature and Printmaking" through Sept. 23.

The show consists of four sets of huge bravura prints, all done between 1984 and 1999, each series inspired by a literary work and striving to tell a story with abstract shapes. "It wouldn't be a literal story," says a Stella quotation on the introductory panel to the show, "but the shapes and the interaction of the shapes and colors would give you a narrative sense."

The 37 works on view are technically astounding. Stella explores every known printmaking technique, often several on the same sheet. If you know something about prints, you will want to examine each one for a long time to see how it was made. And if you don't know much about prints, you will be surprised at how monumental a medium Stella has made of it. The vibrant colors and the density of the visual imagery will knock your eyes out.

What’s the story?

The story though, remains elusive. Perhaps Stella knows it, and even feels it, but the works don't tell it. The show is immensely impressive, but once you stop marveling at the ingenuity of their making, most of the works here are utterly unengaging.

Stella has always been the most impersonal of artists, committed to exploring the possibilities of geometry rather than providing a window on our world. When he was a student at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1958, he refused to participate in a figural painting class. Faced with depicting a live model, he wrote, "I Can't Draw," on his easel. His impact has come not from the marks he has made but from his relentless exploration of the possibilities of abstract shapes and nonrepresentational colors.

Each of his ideas would produce not just one canvas but a series of works in which he created variations or manipulations of a similar set of stripes or half circles. They were more like objects than pictures. As Stella declared, famously, "What you see is what you see." A couple of earlier Stellas are on display at Princeton in a gallery just beyond the special exhibition, including the simple yet potent aluminum-painted Kingsbury Run (1960).

Frank Stella’s “Then Came an Ox and Drank the Water” (1984), from his Had Gadya.
Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum
Frank Stella’s “Then Came an Ox and Drank the Water” (1984), from his Had Gadya.

In 1984, when he made the first of the prints on display here, Stella was probably the leading candidate to be the great American artist of his time. "Stella's career has become an exemplary one, a kind of guarantee of the whole art enterprise," wrote Calvin Tomkins in a long New Yorker profile that year.

Stella had recently delivered a prestigious Norton lecture at Harvard, in which he shockingly proposed that abstract artists should learn the lessons of the turn-of-the-17th-century master Caravaggio and energize three-dimensional space. Stella's canvases were already metamorphosing into sculptural reliefs, as their curves flew out of the frame and into the room. Mr. Plane Geometry was going for baroque.

The prints on display were one result of this quest. The first, made in 1984, were inspired by the artist El Lissitzky's 1919 illustrations of the Had Gadya, a song traditionally sung at the end of the Passover seder. The song recounts a set of events — the purchase of a goat, a cat eating the goat, a dog biting the cat, a stick hitting the dog, the stick burning in the fire, and so on.

While Lissitzky actually illustrated the story, Stella made prints of pillars, cones, striped semicircles, pieces of cloth, and other less recognizable objects which he cut and pasted onto the sheet, often adding some paint. These are the freest and most visually enjoyable of the series shown here.

The rest of the work on display was made in collaboration with Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, N.Y. In this case, the printing plate is itself a collage of elements created with disparate printing processes, including lithograph, etching, aquatint, engraving, and screen printing that were cut and fitted together. Items that recur in these works are gridded plastic fence, lace, computer renderings of cigar smoke, and a roof gutter.

The series based on Italo Calvino's Folk Tales is represented by four impressions of the same plate, Bene come il sale (As Dear as Salt, 1989). Each of the prints has a different feeling, depending on the colors used and the density of the inking. On the wall labels, the curators reprint the entire story, which is about a princess who hides in a candle stand to escape from her father, who wants to kill her. (Spoiler: She is discovered there by a prince who falls head over heels in love with her.) The story is charming, though the prints have little to do with it.

Frank Stella’s “Juam,” at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum
Frank Stella’s “Juam,” at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Perhaps the single most satisfying print in the show is Juam (1997) from the series Imaginary Places. It is centered on a swirling striped spiral, with interlocked rings and patches created with molten metal, and it does evoke the magical island its text describes. Stella seems to have stopped just in time. A more elaborate variant of this print that hangs next to it is much less interesting.

Mitra Abbaspour and Calvin Brown, the show's curators, not Stella, picked all the literary passages that appear on the labels. Throughout his career, Stella has used titles that have no obvious relationship to the works they name. There is reason to doubt the literary works are as important to Stella as the curators say.

But then there's Moby Dick. Stella's interest in the book grew from a shape that had emerged in some of his earlier prints that can be read either as a wave or as a whale. Stella's first thought was to do a series based on all 135 chapter titles, but over 12 years, he produced 266 works in different media inspired by Herman Melville's novel.

You can sort of see the whale in The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck (Dome), from 1991, in which the paper is pressed around a rounded shape that makes the print look pregnant. The chapter itself, though, is more about Ahab, "the wondrous old man" on his monomaniacal quest.

Stella has acknowledged that he identifies with Ahab in his obsession and frustration. Stella's quest for a wholly abstract art that offers the pleasures and the meanings of narrative seems just as doomed.

ON EXHIBIT

Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking

  • Through Sept. 23 at Princeton University Art Museum. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Admission: Free ($5 donation suggested). Information: 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu