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The Little-Known Story of a Frank Stella Work Once Mistaken for a Lunch Table

In 1972, Stella donated “Isfahan III” (1968) to the Museum of Solidarity in Chile. After a coup d’etat, the artwork disappeared for nearly 20 years, but its story is coming to light as the museum conserves the painting with the help of the Getty Foundation.

“Isfahan III”, MSSA Collection. (photo courtesy MSSA Collection. Courtesy MSSA/Frank Stella. © 1968 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

It’s a little known fact that in 1972, minimalist artist Frank Stella donated the painting “Isfahan III” (1968) to the Museum of Solidarity (Museo de la Solidaridad) in Chile, a new institution that invited artists from around the world to donate art in honor of Chilean president Salvador Allende’s new socialist government. But after a dramatic coup d’etat a year later, this high-profile painting disappeared from public view for almost 20 years and ended up in use as a lunch table for unwitting museum workers. Now the focus of a conservation project at the same museum, the artwork’s complicated history unravels.

“Isfahan III” being rolled (Photo: MSSA Collection. Courtesy MSSA/Frank Stella © 1968 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Established in 1971, the Santiago-based Museum of Solidarity the socialist values of Allende’s government and called for international solidarity with popular resistance movements in the developing world. A long list of eminent artists responded to the call for donations, including Joaquin Torres Garcia, Pablo Picasso, Robert Motherwell, Sol Lewitt, Philip Guston, and Stella. 

In September 1973, a military coup overthrew Allende’s democratically elected government and brought the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. As a result, the museum had to dissolve its collection and transfer the artworks to several temporary locations. From 1975 to 1990, it operated in exile as the Salvador Allende International Museum of Resistance, with a traveling collection of works by foreign artists and exiled Chileans.

During that period, many of the donated works had gone missing. Stella’s work, however, was rolled up and stored at different locations that belonged to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) in Santiago. It remained there until 1991, when Chile returned to democracy. During that time, some museum workers who weren’t familiar with Stella’s work used it as a table for lunch. While the canvas survived its misuse, the original stretcher for the massive and geometrically unique painting — more than 10 feet high and 21 feet wide —  has been long lost. This would later prove to be a major challenge in conserving the painting. 

After the recovery of democratic rule in Chile in 1991, the museum returned to Santiago to reopened its doors under its current name, the Salvador Allende Solidarity Museum (MSSA). That year, the museum celebrated its revival with an exhibition that featured “Isfahan III” as its centerpiece. The work has since traveled to several exhibitions around the world, but for each location, it had to be rolled back up and mounted on a temporary stretcher. In time, this wear took its toll on the canvas.

Workshop participants at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende examine Frank Stella’s “Isfahan III”, which received conservation treatment through the Getty Foundation’s Conserving Canvas initiative (image courtesy Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende)

In 2018, the MSSA’s conservation team arrived at the conclusion that the painting is in dire need of a new stretcher, and removed it from public display. It’s around then that the museum learned about the Getty Foundation’s Conserving Canvas initiative, which in 2019 agreed to fund a year-long conservation project to restore the painting.

“When I first saw the painting, it was torqued and some of the canvas was creased,” Antoine (Ton) Wilmering, a senior program officer at the Getty’s Conserving Canvas program, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “Stella’s paintings in his Protractor series are all very clear and solid images, so it was really disruptive to the aesthetic appreciation of the painting.”

Luckily, Stella’s paint is “very lean,” according to Wilmering, which helped the work survive the frequent roll-ups. However, a new technique had to be developed to create a permanent spring-loaded stretcher that retained the integrity of the work.

MSSA’s conservation team treating the canvas’s surface (photo courtesy MSSA Collection. Courtesy MSSA/Frank Stella © 1968 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

“The stretcher provides the right amount of tension on the canvas but also allows for the canvas to be taken off and rolled up,” Wilmering said. “The stretcher can also be taken apart in three sections and shipped to other venues.”

Caroll Yasky, Head of Collection at the MSSA and co-author of the catalog raisonné Museo Internacional de la Resistencia Salvador Allende 1975-1990, told Hyperallergic that more work is being done to treat the painting’s surface.

“Now that the canvas is stable we have planned to continue treating the paint layer with general cleaning of the surface to recover its visual renditions, including work on abraded areas, localized paint losses, and removal or reduction of stains,” Yasky said. “We do not want to intervene more than needed considering that this painting is unique because of its history.”

“‘Isfahan III’ is one of our collection’s highlights and we are the only Latin-American museum, at least that we know of, that has one of these paintings from Stella’s Protractor series,” Yasky continued. “It is very significant for the museum and the Chilean public because it is representative of the history of the museum and its founding principles of solidarity.”

A special three-part spring-loaded stretcher was devised for the painting (photo courtesy MSSA Collection. Courtesy MSSA/Frank Stella © 1968 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

According to Yasky, Stella donated “Isfahan III” because “that was the work that he had in hand at the moment and also which he could not sell easily due to its size.” He handed the work to the American art critic Dore Ashton, who was at the time the US representative of the International Committee of Artistic Solidarity with Chile (CISAC).

Stella, who’s now 80, has maintained a close relationship with the Museum of Solidarity over the years. He visited the museum on three different occasions between 1993 and 2005, once giving a lecture about his Moby Dick series, and he’s currently collaborating with the museum’s team on an oral history project about the story of “Isfahan III.”

“He was very receptive to our questions and took his time to answer each one of them, maybe with not so much detail as we would have liked but clearly anyway,” Yasky said. “We have to bear in mind that he is in his 80s now and he was very straight forward answering that he did not remember everything.”

In June, when the conservation is finally completed, the museum will hold a seminar about the “Stella Project”, in addition to the screening of a documentary on the museum’s place in Chile’s history, directed by Bruno Salas.

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