Frank Stella: Had Gadya Exhibition

Currently on view at the Heller Museum at the Hebrew Union College / Jewish Institute of Religion
One West Fourth Street, New York City
August 14, 2023-February 29, 2024

One might not immediately associate Frank Stella (b. 1936), the American painter, sculptor, and printmaker noted for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction, with a cumulative, lyrical poem that concludes the traditional Seder, or festive meal, on the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Had Gadya describes a chain of events of events evoking conflict culminating in divine intervention. Just as each of the ten verses of the song builds on the one before it, Stella’s 12 Had Gadya prints build on the original 1919 series of 11 illustrations of Had Gadya by Russian-Jewish avant-garde artist Eliezer (El) Lissitzky, which Stella encountered at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1981.

Lissitzky’s works spurred Stella to develop his own language of narrative abstraction in sequential works, each one building upon the imagery and structure of its predecessor. Each stanza is conveyed by the juxtaposition of architectonic elements, painterly gestural drawing, vivid color, and motion-filled forms projecting beyond boundaries. Stella employs a complex combination of printmaking techniques – lithography, linoleum block, silkscreen, and rubber relief with collage elements and hand-coloring.

Stella’s forms are not literal depictions, but their narrative essence is transmitted through the dramatic, dynamic repetition, collision, intersection, and aggressive movement through space of cylinders, cones, grills, waves, and graffiti-like scrawls. These works also display the influences of the three-dimensional drawings in a 19th-century treatise on stonecutting given to him by art dealer John Kasmin, Fernand Leger’s mechanical elements paintings, and the dramatic movement of Caravaggio’s paintings, which he studied as an artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1982-83.

Stella explained his interest in abstract minimalism and archetypal storytelling:

“Abstraction didn’t have to be limited to…rectilinear geometry or even a simple curve geometry. It could have a geometry that had a narrative impact. In other words, you could tell a story with the shapes….It wouldn’t be a literal story, but the shapes and the interaction of the shapes and colors would give you a narrative sense.”

In his Had Gadya series, the abstracted narrative of successive episodes of strife, ultimately concluding with redemption, offered Stella, a Catholic, the opportunity to express a universal, aspirational message of justice in the face of destructive forces in the world. His Had Gadya series exerts a forceful impact, inspiring the viewer to experience the power of good prevailing over evil, with hope to be found in the indestructible human spirit.

Taking two years to complete during 1982-1984, the prints were published by Waddington Graphics, London, in 1984. After completing the edition, Stella created between two and nine variants of each of the twelve Had Gadya illustrations. Stella’s Had Gadya represents a significant moment in his artistic development, leading to further explorations of narrative subjects in his abstract work.

Frank Stella: Had Gadya is on loan from collector Elissa Oshinsky for a national tour at the campuses of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). This exhibition originated at the Skirball Campus in Los Angeles (March 31–December 31, 2022), was presented at the Skirball Museum at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati (March 23-July 2, 2023), and is currently on view at the Heller Museum at HUC-JIR in New York (August 14, 2023-February 29, 2024), after which it will be presented in partnership with HUC-JIR at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.