DATE November 16, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Abstract painter Frank Stella talks about his art and
his recent work being shown at the Locks Gallery
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is artist Frank Stella. Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes once
wrote, `Stella wrings more pictorial feeling from abstract art than anyone
else alive.' Stella is considered one of the fathers of the minimalist art of
the '60s. His early work in the late '50s was a series of black paintings
whose austerity contrasted with the bold brush strokes and drips of Abstract
Expressionism. In the '60s, Stella moved on to geometrical paintings, often
in vivid, clashing colors. His work has continued to evolve. Today, many of
his paintings and sculptures are on a large scale. In fact, he works out of a
foundry for his sculptures. He sometimes uses computer technology to generate
images that he incorporates into his work.
Stella is also admired for his ideas about art. In the mid-'80s, he gave the
prestigious Norton Lectures at Harvard University. His new paintings and
sculptures are on exhibit in Philadelphia at the Locks Gallery. I asked
Stella to describe his new work.
Mr. FRANK STELLA (Abstract Painter): ...I guess, is to describe, really, the
work that I've been working on for the last 10 years, so it's not difficult
for me, but, I mean, basically I'm working on painting, sculpture and
architecture, although actually in this show you don't see much of the
architectural models. But I've just been working in a fairly broad way,
actually making paintings in a kind of sort of flat, almost conventional
painting. And I think the sculpture is really something new, or new for the
last decade anyway, and there are small examples of it here. And there's one
big example of it, which is--it's a sculpture, but because of the gallery and
the way it fits in, it takes on aspects of instillation art, although I hate
that word. I mean, I don't hate all of instillation art, but the idea that
I've sunk so low as to do an instillation seems to me a horrible idea.
GROSS: Oh, what's so awful about instillation?
Mr. STELLA: I don't know. I just--instillation is usually an excuse for
things that can't be resolved or don't even come close to being resolved. The
average instillation in my mind is somebody placing something on the floor.
GROSS: Are you working on a very large scale now? Even the art that's in the
gallery in Philadelphia now is--What?--maybe 10 feet high and one of the
sculptures fills a whole room. You work not only in your studio, you have a
foundry. You have a staff. You have a crew that you have to work with
because the works are so large.
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. People make a lot of that, actually. It's interesting. I
mean, it's not my foundry. I work at a foundry. I have a studio and I have
people who work with me and help me out. But, you know, the--from my point of
view, there's a lot of work to do and we all work at it. I mean, it's not
exactly collaboration because, by and large, they're supposed to be doing what
I tell them to do. Sometimes they don't and the results are good, and
sometimes they don't and the results are quite bad. But we've been doing it
for a fairly long time. The people who work with me have worked for me for 15
or 20 years. But now it's sort of leveled out and they're all, you know,
ready to go on to their own lives and everything like that. And that kind of
thing is winding down for me. But maybe that's why this is sort of a last
burst to get some big things done while I both have the energy and the people
who can stay focused to work with me.
GROSS: Now I'm not an artist, but, you know, I would think that something
might get lost in the process of not just doing it all yourself--you know, the
man alone in his room with his paint and the canvas or with his sculptural
Mr. STELLA: You know, I mean, it's sort of ludicrous, actually. I suppose
that people can mess things up, but by and large, one man can't do very much,
although Michelangelo did fire some of his assistants when he was working on
the Sistine Chapel because they were annoying him, I guess, and he had to
finish it himself. On the other hand, I would be more than happy to have
Sebastiano del Piombo and Perideno(ph) and to have--and Polidoro Caravaggio
are some of the people that helped, you know, Michelangelo. It wasn't bad
those kind of a...
GROSS: But has your role as an artist become something you never imagined it
would be, somebody who basically has to run a business and pay a staff and
work with a foundry?
Mr. STELLA: You know, it's changed, I mean, and it's just--that it's just as
hard to pay for yourself or take care of your children or whatever you do.
The scale of it doesn't matter somehow all that much to me. I don't know.
The one thing that hasn't changed actually is the problem. The problem is
always the same, to get the work done. That's always hard.
GROSS: What's your...
Mr. STELLA: I mean, money never made it easier, and now that I don't have so
much money, it's still hard. I mean, actually, I don't understand.
GROSS: You don't understand what?
Mr. STELLA: I don't understand how it came to be that you could be successful
and so overwhelmingly unsuccessful at the same time.
GROSS: What's the unsuccessful part?
Mr. STELLA: It's that it's the effort that it takes to make anything...
Mr. STELLA: ...and to make--and it doesn't change the amount of effort that
is needed to make something good. In fact, actually, maybe it gets harder.
GROSS: Frank Stella is my guest and he has a show of new work at the Locks
Gallery in Philadelphia. 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 brushstrokes, 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?
Mr. STELLA: I suppose. I mean, you can imagine it--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 if anything happens. Or you can
start out as a sort of aggressive, hard-nosed, kind of arrogant youth and pare
everything down and dare everybody to say that you can't--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?
Mr. 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,
GROSS: What were they about to you? What did you see yourself as trying to
do or to say?
Mr. STELLA: Well, it was about being able to make an abstract painting that
really wasn't based on anything but the gesture of making itself, which was
the gesture of making the painting.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
Mr. STELLA: So that the gesture of drawing was--it was just a path of the
stripe that was the--created the painting or sort of the path of the brush on
Mr. STELLA: And that...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. STELLA: Well, it's not--most drawing is outline or edging to create a
form, and the drawing and the painting in this work was one and it didn't
create a form. It was the form.
GROSS: What did you think were some of the most interesting on-track and
off-track pieces of art criticism about your early work?
Mr. 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, unfortunately.
But it wasn't--you know, it's hard to make paintings, and I was really
interested in the idea of art. And criticism is a little tricky because
criticism is worried about so many things and it hardly ever worries about how
good the art is or how hard it is to make art. So criticism--I'm not
criticizing criticism, but it always has to place it within a context. And if
you're actually the person who's making the art, there is no context. The
context is the immediate moment that you make the painting and the paintings
you make. And that's the only place I live in or I am. I am there and that's
where I live.
And then the other things happen afterwards. 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're in
your 20s and just starting off as a painter?
Mr. STELLA: Actually, the thing about being famous and 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--that it would be as good as de Kooning or
Kline or Newman or Pollock or Rothko. They were my heroes and I wanted to
make art that was as good as them. 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
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 and...
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. What's the big deal about being...
GROSS: ...a lot of drinking and everything.
Mr. STELLA: Right. Right.
GROSS: And some people in their attempt to be artists would emulate the
lifestyle as well. Did that lifestyle mean anything to you? Is it...
Mr. 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.
GROSS: My guest is artist Frank Stella. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is artist Frank Stella. He has a new show in Philadelphia at
the Locks Gallery.
You grew up in, I think, a pretty middle-class family.
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: Father was a doctor, a gynecologist.
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And apparently he worked as a house painter...
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: ...during the Depression to put himself through college.
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: And from what I've read, it sounds like occasionally he'd, like,
repaint the house you lived in and you'd help him paint.
Mr. STELLA: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I was in paint all my life. Yes, yes.
GROSS: Did you enjoy the feel of house paint or the colors of house paint?
Mr. 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 and she painted with oil and my father painted with house paint. So I
had paint pretty well covered. When I first saw a 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?
Mr. STELLA: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. STELLA: And it knew it from painting houses. And, I mean, even at the
time that Pollock was doing that, 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.
GROSS: So what connection did you see between, you know, the house painting
and the Pollocks?
Mr. 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 stopped
halfway through while you're painting your wall, it'd be a lot more
interesting. But, you know, no one's going to let you stop 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
Mr. STELLA: Well, I mean, I painted all my way through school. I mean, I
went to Phillips Academy in Andover and 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.
Mr. STELLA: That's true. When I was at Phillips 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 one of--so you want 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. But--and then you went on from there. And somehow--I don't know
how it worked actually.
Patrick Morgan(ph), who was a painter, and his wife, Maude Morgan(ph), was a
painter, and she showed in New York and he showed in Boston. They were
relatively, at that time, successful painters in the early '50s. That was
Pat's idea of the course. You did that and then you went on to do something
else or whatever it was. But they made it--you know, you had to--you couldn't
make a mess. You had to sort of paint it in some kind of way. And so I
didn't really like it and everything, and we had a class and they started
showing us about Seurat and Neoimpressionism and things like that. And then I
said to myself, `Oh, that's, you know, kind of obvious.' And 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. All right,' and he let
me go. And from then 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?
Mr. STELLA: Well, I did about 20 minutes.
GROSS: How old were you?
Mr. STELLA: I was probably 15.
GROSS: And I'm surprised that your teacher just kind of allowed you to
dismiss the technique like that.
Mr. STELLA: Look, I was a wiseguy. But, you know, a lot of teachers have to
deal with kids who are wiseguys. 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 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: Now what was it that made you realize that you just weren't about
representational art? Was it a technical problem or just, like, an aesthetic
lack of interest?
Mr. STELLA: You know, I had representational art on my window. My mother
painted Santa Claus on there and she was always making things. 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--and when I saw the
Pollock painting and paintings--and Hans Hoffmann paintings in Patrick
Morgan's house and in the gallery at the Addison Gallery, I mean, I was
overwhelmed by them. 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: 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'?
Mr. 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 Capital Line
Museum(ph) Caravaggio's, 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 and 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 caves in Lascaux or 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
Mr. 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 or that, 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.
Mr. STELLA: You know, 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
Mr. STELLA: Mm-hmm. 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?
Mr. STELLA: I pretended it wasn't a problem.
GROSS: Why? Why pretend? Was that for your own benefit or...
Mr. STELLA: Well...
GROSS: ...so that people around you wouldn't lose confidence?
Mr. 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 gotta keep that to yourself if there's any doubts.
Mr. 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
GROSS: How'd you learn that?
Mr. STELLA: Because 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 it from a museum director that that painting
is a complete failure.
GROSS: Well, there is also a real stock market factor 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?
Mr. 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. And without a patron, it's quite
GROSS: Frank Stella will be back in the second half of the show. He has a
show of new work in Philadelphia at the Locks Gallery. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Sponsorship of program)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with artist Frank Stella.
Also, new information on the role of the US government in the 1973 Pinochet
coup in Chile. We talk with Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive,
which helped lead the effort to declassify thousands of secret documents.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our conversation with artist Frank Stella. He has an
exhibition of new work in Philadelphia.
One of the commissions that you're working on now is for--you described it as
an architectural piece--and this is for the Miami Heat stadium. And...
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. It's called the Band Shell(ph). It really is a sculpture
that's in the shape of band shell, and it has a stage so it could be a
performing piece--piece you could perform on, yes. It's a big outdoor piece.
GROSS: And you were telling me you're actually building this in France at a
foundry that does military work. Do I have that right?
Mr. STELLA: Well, it's a big shipyard in Cherbourg. Yeah. And they do
things for the French navy, and maybe other navies, too. I don't know. But
it's a very large shipyard, and it's pretty--it's a heavily automated
shipyard. And we are building this piece there because we tried to build it
with smaller shops here in America and it didn't work out for a number of
reasons. So we've moved it there.
But one of the problems with it is that so much of the effort ends up being
about technical factors and the piece itself is finally overwhelmed by the
necessity to be a public artwork outdoors in Miami. And it's a complicated
piece. The geometry is complicated. And in order to build a complicated
piece, it has to withstand, you know, 175 mile an hour wind. You're just
banging your head against a wall all the time. It's just difficult just, you
know, to meet all of the, you know, criteria you need to make it stable.
GROSS: Knowing how difficult it is to hire a contractor just to do some work
in your bathroom or your kitchen, I can't imagine what it's like to have that
much at stake with contractors working at a shipyard...
Mr. STELLA: Well, it's a drag.
GROSS: ...halfway around the world
Mr. STELLA: Right. I mean, they're supposed to be honest, I mean, but we
had a lot of problems with the welding on our piece. And it's a large--a lot
of aluminum, a large amount of welding that had to meet specifications that
just weren't met here. And so in a smaller yard, maybe where they're not,
you know, used to those kind of standards, or they don't really feel it's
necessary. You know, everyone says, `Oh, yeah, but it's really strong
enough,' but we, you know, can't afford to go by that.
GROSS: I wonder if it's OK with you to ask you about your finger?
Mr. STELLA: Uh-huh. Yeah, it's OK. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: You have one finger that...
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. I have a crushed left hand. Yeah. Yeah. I have one
finger that's half, and a couple of other fingers are damaged, yeah. It's a
crush injury from when I was 10 years old.
GROSS: What happened?
Mr. 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?
Mr. STELLA: No, when they cru...
GROSS: Or was that the surgery afterwards?
Mr. STELLA: I mean, 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
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. But I'm right-handed, so it's not...
GROSS: And it's your left hand that was crushed.
Mr. STELLA: Yeah.
GROSS: So you're OK with that?
Mr. STELLA: It's not a problem.
GROSS: And I think--did they get you out of the military?
Mr. 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 a bad 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 I wasn't conflicted or anything. I mean, I was just
painting and living in New York with my friends, meeting people and making
And then I went to take my physical examination, and I didn't really want to
go in the Army, so I did all the things--I wet my bed, I sucked my thumb--I
don't--and they just laughed at me and they stamped all my papers. And then
the last guy--there were three doctors in a row on a table, and the guy looked
at me and he said, `Well, 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.' 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'd you feel?
Mr. 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 and that 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 gonna go back to my studio.' And that was
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?
Mr. 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 doing--you
know, life at that age, it was a nice--you know, New York was sort of
relatively gentle. I mean, there were artists around and you could sort of
bum around and it was OK. You could manage.
GROSS: When you dream, is there ever a kind of visual correlation between the
type of work that you're involved with at the moment and the color or the
imagery in your dreams?
Mr. STELLA: Not much. I mean, I've had a few dreams about painting, but I'm
not--they're mostly nightmares actually.
GROSS: What? Anxiety dreams about deadlines.
Mr. STELLA: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Do you usually feel pretty pressured about things that...
Mr. STELLA: Yes, I do. I'm--you know, as you get older--I mean, you know,
as they say you're--the polite way of saying it is your short-term memory
starts to go. And I find myself pretty believing it. I can't handle
everything very well.
GROSS: What? You mean memory wise or...
Mr. STELLA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: But do the pressures of making art and the pressures of meeting
deadlines, and the pressures of being able to afford the work that you're
doing inhibit you at all? I mean, do they ever interfere with your...
Mr. STELLA: I don't know. I mean, I like to feel that they do, but when I
just came down today to see the show at the gallery--you know, I stopped
by--you know, I don't see how the show could be as--I think it's pretty good
and I like it and I'm satisfied with it in a lot of ways. And I wouldn't be
that way if it hadn't been for all of the things that went wrong with it--I
mean, all of the pressures and everything. I don't think I could
have--somehow it happens because you work your way--you work at it and you
work your way through it. And you just can't get around that. You can't beat
GROSS: Is there an example you can give of something that turned out in a way
that you're really happy--that resulted from a problem that you can
describe--something you had to overcome?
Mr. STELLA: Well, the whole show was a problem because the gallery has those
huge four--well, four columns downstairs and six columns upstairs. And I had
work, and then it just--you know, for a while I thought of putting things in
the space, and then finally I gave up around the 10th of August, and I
said--Earl Childers(ph), who works with me and everything--I said, `Look, I
can't face it. I can't do that show there.' I said, `We just have to face
the columns,' and then he said, `Well, what do you want to do?' And I said,
`Let's use the columns,' and then we went from there.
GROSS: Do a lot of young artists want advice from you and what you...
Mr. 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
GROSS: How do you keep yourself isolated from that?
Mr. STELLA: I don't know. Maybe I just don't attract the kind of people
that need advice, I hope. I don't know. I'm not sure.
GROSS: Well, Frank Stella, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. STELLA: Thank you. It was fun.
GROSS: Frank Stella has an exhibition of new work in Philadelphia at the
Coming up, newly declassified documents about American intervention in Chile.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Peter Kornbluh discusses the declassification of CIA
reports on US involvement with former Chilean dictator Augusto
TERRY GROSS, host:
This week as Americans have been focused on our contested presidential
election, new information has been released about US interference in another
country's democracy, Chile. Sixteen thousand secret US records were
declassified and released on Monday pertaining to US covert operations
involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean President
Salvador Allende, the support of the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet and the
bolstering of the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship. This is the fourth and final
part of the Clinton administration's Chile Declassification Project. Peter
Kornbluh says it's enabling us to rewrite the history of US intervention in
Chile. Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, which
helped lead the declassification campaign. He brought with him a document
that reveals one of President Nixon's reasons for wanting the CIA to intervene
Mr. PETER KORNBLUH (National Security Archive): He says, `Our main concern
in Chile is the prospect that Allende can consolidate himself, and the picture
projected to the world will be his success.' It seems that what the president
of the United States was concerned about was that a Socialist coalition in
Chile would be freely elected, and this would be a model for other countries,
not only in Latin America, but in Europe as well, where there were very strong
Socialist parties, where Euro communism was an issue, to follow suit. And
this is a very important document.
We have documents that really, I think, show that the leading role of Nixon's
then national security adviser Henry Kissinger in overseeing and orchestrating
CIA operations to undermine Allende--we have memos from Kissinger to Nixon
that lay out what needs to be done. We have the meeting minutes of something
called the 40 Committee, which was the committee that decided the policy of
covert intervention in Chile, which Kissinger chaired. And in these documents
we can see his absolute leading role in pressing the CIA forward to undermine
democracy in Chile.
GROSS: At one of those meetings, Kissinger says, `Unless we establish tight
control and professional guidance, the covert action program approved by the
40 Committee for Chile will not work. It's going to be a long shot as it is.
If we have to face the additional handicaps of well-meaning but unprofessional
activism, of lack of coordination and a bureaucratic resistance, we will be
dangerously exposed.' What's he talking about?
Mr. KORNBLUH: What you're reading is a memo that Henry Kissinger has sent to
the president of the United States imploring him to authorize a kind of a new
bureaucratic set up to effectively launch these covert operations, have the
CIA intervene in Chilean political affairs and block Salvador Allende from
being inaugurated after he was elected. And Kissinger is taking the lead here
to lay out to the president what needs to be done. How the ambassador has to
be circumvented. How the CIA has to have a structure, a special task force
and all the resources necessary for this covert project to overthrow democracy
in Chile to succeed.
GROSS: At a National Security Council meeting, President Nixon said in
discussing about why he wanted to bring down Allende, he says, `No impression
should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this; that
it's safe to go this way. All over the world, it's too much the fashion to
kick us around. There must be times when we should and must react not because
we want to hurt them, but to show we can't be kicked around.'
Mr. KORNBLUH: This is reminiscent of Richard Nixon's checker speech, which
he said, `You won't have me to kick around anymore.' And this is a document
that was withheld by the Ford White House from the Senate investigators in the
mid-1970s when Senator Frank Church was exploring and investigating what the
CIA had done in Chile and what the orders of the CIA had been. This document
has been kept secret all of these years. And it's one of those documents,
Terry, which shows us the richness of this history. It gives us Richard Nixon
in his own words elaborating on his feelings about a freely elected Socialist
government in Chile. It shows the imperial mind-set of the president of the
United States. And even more, extraordinarily, you have him sitting there
with his Cabinet, and all the other Cabinet members, the Secretary of Defense
Melvin Laird, the Secretary of State William Rogers, saying, `Yes, Allende has
to go down. We have to bring him down.' When you have at the highest level
of the US government people freely talking about overthrowing a democratically
elected government elsewhere, you have an extraordinarily important historical
GROSS: What do these newly released documents reveal about what the US
government did to help bring about the coup in Chile to overthrow Allende?
Mr. KORNBLUH: Well, for all these years, the CIA has maintained that it
played, no, quote, "direct", unquote, role in overthrowing the Allende
government in September of 1973. And for the most part, there are very few
documents released now from that date period. We know that the CIA was
monitoring coup plotting very, very closely. And that on September 8th,
according to CIA intelligence reports, the Unites States did receive word that
a coup was in motion. We know that immediately after the coup, the CIA set
about embracing and supporting the violent and military regime led by Augusto
There is one extraordinary document that has been declassified on November
13th. And that is an intelligence report of a conversation with Augusto
Pinochet in September of 1972; a full year before the coup took place. And it
is a document that is going to help Chilean historians address the issue of
when Pinochet's involvement in coup plotting began. In this document, he says
to a US intelligence source that he's having second thoughts about Allende;
that Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated. In other words,
Pinochet showing his violent colors here; his violent stripes, suggesting that
Allende be killed in order to facilitate a coup. At the very end of this
document, most importantly, it says that Pinochet was in Panama in September
of 1972, and that he met with US Army officers who he had known from his days
at the School of the Americas, and quote, "was told US will support coup
against Allende with whatever means necessary when the time comes."
Now this is a document which shows for the first time that the message was
passed to the person who ended up leading the coup and to the person who
established himself as dictator of Chile after the coup that the United States
would fully support his actions in this regard. And I believe that he and the
rest of the Chilean military went into that coup knowing full well that the
administration of the United States was fully behind them.
GROSS: Does it say who led him to believe that? Who told him that?
Mr. KORNBLUH: The names of these officers are not mentioned in the actual
document. And the intelligence source of the actual report is blacked out.
One of the problems with the documents that the CIA has declassified is that
there are heavily censored. And it is continuing to wield a black Magic
Marker in the name of national security. There's huge swaths of these records
that are completely black. And they're essentially covering up major actions
that the CIA took that are extremely relevant to the historical record on
GROSS: Do these documents offer new information on the connection between the
CIA and General Manuel Contreras, who was the head of DINA, Pinochet's
Mr. KORNBLUH: The CIA sent a report up to Congress in September that laid
out in great detail its relationship with General Manuel Contreras, who was
considered the most ruthless violator of human rights in Chile. He was
Pinochet's right-hand man of repression, if you will, leading the Chilean
secret police. He was responsible for sending assassins to Washington, DC, in
September of 1976 to assassinate former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier.
Letelier's American associate, a 25-year-old New Jersey woman, Ronnie Moffitt,
was also murdered in that car bombing.
We had hoped that the documents used in this report that was sent to Congress
would be declassified on November 13th; documents that showed that the
relationship between the CIA station chief in Santiago and Contreras, the
payments that were made to Contreras when the CIA put him on the payroll, the
intelligence information that they supposedly got from him, the minutes of
their meetings with Manuel Contreras, but none of those documents were
declassified. Those are important not only to the history of the US role and
responsibility in Chile, but to the current case against Contreras and against
General Pinochet himself that the US Justice Department is exploring on
Pinochet's potential role as the intellectual author of the Letelier
assassination. These documents have historical value, and they have a current
legal value. We are hoping that they will eventually be declassified.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This week the Clinton administration completed its four-part release
of secret documents about US intervention in Chile. My guest Peter Kornbluh
of the National Security Archive helped lead the campaign to declassify the
Is there any new information that these released documents offer about the
murders of Americans Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi by the Chilean military
shortly after the coup?
Mr. KORNBLUH: Many of the documents on Charles Horman were released last
June 30th, but some new documents were released on November 13th about the
case of the other American who was killed right after the coup. A young man
named Frank Teruggi, who was working as a journalist in Chile at the time.
The Chilean military came to his house several days after the coup, detained
him and his roommate, took him to the National Stadium. His roommate was
interrogated and eventually release, but Frank Teruggi was interrogated,
tortured and executed; his body later found in a public morgue.
These new documents are very complicated. They show that US intelligence,
particularly the FBI and Defense Department's intelligence, had received Frank
Teruggi's name and address in Chile from German intelligence. A letter had
been intercepted by somebody that the Germans were surveilling in Bonn. It
was not particularly an important letter. It was simply a letter to somebody
they were surveilling there who was publishing literature on various events
around the world. And somebody had written to this individual saying, `You
know, I can't help you in terms of reporting on Chile, but there is a guy
who's working as a journalist in Chile named Frank Teruggi. Here's his
address.' The FBI circulated the address and conducted an investigation on
Teruggi here in the United States, did some other reported on his supposedly
leftist activities, labeled him as subversive in some of the documents.
The question is whether these documents were passed to the Central
Intelligence Agency, and whether the Central Intelligence Agency passed them
to the Chilean military at the point of the coup. This is a question that the
Teruggi family certainly wants to see answered. And it is one of the
remaining mysteries of the murder of this American in Chile.
GROSS: What's the latest with Pinochet now? What's his legal status in
Mr. KORNBLUH: General Pinochet has been indicted in Argentina for a car
bombing assassination of one his military rivals, General Carlos Prats and
his wife in 1974. The Argentines are seeking his extradition. This was a
very similar operation to the Letelier assassination that took place two years
before the car bombing here in Washington. Pinochet is now about to undergo
some medical testing to determine whether he is mentally fit to stand trial.
Almost all other obstacles to his actually appearing in a court of law and
facing his victims have been removed by the Chilean courts; an extraordinary
turn of events.
General Pinochet is being tried on a specific set of disappearances. Fourteen
disappearances that took place during something called `The Caravan of Death,'
when he sent out one of his generals to go up and down Chile removing
political prisoners from jails and murdering them on the spot. Fourteen of
those individuals are still disappeared and General Pinochet's hopefully going
to be tried on those cases. We know that the CIA has one very specific
document that relates to those murders dated in October 1973, which has not
yet been declassified. Hopefully, Chilean authorities can move to press the
United States government to release that document and any other relevant
document to the case against Pinochet; declassifying those documents or
providing them to the Chilean courts so that they may be used as evidence
against the general himself.
GROSS: Have any of the classified documents that have yet been released or
will any do you think of the documents that you hope will be released result
in a prosecution of any United States citizens who are involved in covert
actions in Chile or involved in the coup to overthrow Allende?
Mr. KORNBLUH: The CIA does not release the names of any of its agents. The
names of many US officials who were in Chile have been blacked out of these
documents. It will be very, very difficult for anybody in Chile to actually
bring a case, I think--a successful case against US officials. But certainly
there is some accountability issues here. The United States was involved in
promoting violence in Chile. The case of Renee Schneider(ph)--was involved in
trying to cover up her murder. And I don't know--I think that we have gone
through a process of an accounting of the US role in Chile and eventually that
process will shift to the issue of accountability. And in that phase, in the
years to come, you may very well see an effort by Chilean citizens to seek
redress for what was done in their country by the United States.
GROSS: There are documents you still hope will be released. What evidence do
you have that these documents actually exist? What knowledge do you have of
what they say?
Mr. KORNBLUH: We know about many documents because they have been referred
to in previously published congressional or Senate reports, or even the CIA
reports--a recent CIA report to Congress released in September contains
multiple references to documents and events that just simply are non-existent
in the records that have been released to date. You have to understand,
though, that this is the end. This declassification of documents on November
13th marks the end of the Clinton administration's special Chile
Declassification Project. In the future, we're going to have to take what we
have learned, read through the documents very carefully, make a list of what
we believe is not there and seek a legal remedy under the Freedom of
Information Act or other mechanisms to get the rest of these documents
declassified. It may be a long struggle. It took more than 30 years to get
these documents declassified. Hopefully, it won't take another 30 years
before we have the complete record in the public domain.
GROSS: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KORNBLUH: It is a pleasure as always, Terry.
GROSS: Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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