Herman Melville’s novels and poems found little appreciation in his lifetime. He achieved limited financial success, making just over $10,000 from a decades-long career in writing. Yet reappraisal of the author’s texts in the 1910s and 1920s cemented Melville in the firmament of great American authors. Even today, the motifs he presented in Moby-Dick; or the Whale manifest themselves across creative fields. In popular culture, his work has been referenced widely, from The Simpsons to Led Zeppelin and Starbucks.
Outside illustration, however, there are few visual artists who have engaged in a serious effort to capture the emotional impact and grandiosity of Captain Ahab’s beleaguered grudge match with the great white whale. Frank Stella is one exception, having pulled inspiration from Melville’s tale for a series of paintings, sculptures, and lithographs. For an artist who once famously shrugged off deep analysis of minimalism by saying, “What you see is what you see,” his Moby Dick prints are firework furies of expressionistic colors and pattern work. Currently on view at Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art, a selection of works from Stella’s Moby Dick series displays the artist’s entrancement with Melville’s epic tale.
Stella infuses passion into his Moby Dick prints with riotous neon colors and ecstatic patterning choices that create a vast network of aesthetically divergent layers. The empty bar of a music score in “The Candles” (1992) wriggles across the print’s surface as a reddish-pink swath of mesh netting is pierced from above by what appears to be a hazy, yellow-green heat map. This particular print visualizes the fiery balls of lighting (also known as St. Elmo’s fire) that illuminate the masts atop Ahab’s whaling ship, the Pequod, during a thunderstorm in the book.
Stella’s Moby Dick series also includes a set of predominantly monochromatic prints, infused with faint splashes of color to express a more weighty response to Melville’s tale. “Jonah Historically Regarded” (1991) is a direct reference to the 83rd chapter of the author’s novel. Indirectly, it also recalls the Old Testament tale of Jonah and the Whale. Thrown overboard during a storm at sea, Jonah is swallowed whole by an enormous whale, wherein he learns to submit to God’s will. This was a central metaphor in Moby-Dick, and the story finds its way into Stella’s visual lexicon. Here, the outline of a whale appears to emerge from a swirling, nautical vortex. Above is a scribble — possibly a representation of Ahab or Jonah, whose demise seems imminent.
“I have written a wicked book,” Melville said when his novel was first published in 1851, “and I feel as spotless as the lamb.” Stella’s illustrious abstractions of the Moby Dick tale are similarly guiltless in their swirling, emotional punches. The artist captures that Melvillean sense that devilry and innocence can commingle in one place or person. Stella’s prints manifest that unsettling truth and thereby reflect on Captain Ahab’s journey anew.
Frank Stella: Selected Prints from the Moby Dick Series continues through October 26 at Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art (548 West 28th Street, Suite 636, Chelsea, Manhattan).