“Frank Stella: Had Gadya” — Then came a dog and bit the cat, 1984.
© Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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.
Exhibition Opening Reception
Thursday, September 7, 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. ET
6:00 pm ET | Program
Collecting Stella’s Had Gadya – Elissa Oshinsky, lender to the exhibition
The Music of Had Gadya – Cantor Ella Gladstone Martin ’23, The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, Long Island; with Cantor Jill Abramson, Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, and DFSSM students Lauren Blasband-Roth ’25, Justin Callis ’25, Sierra Fox ’25, Emily Lezin ’27, Kevin McKenzie ’24, Beth Reinstein ’25, and Joyce Rosenzweig, Professor of Practice in Jewish Music and Performance, DFSSM
Frank Stella: Jewish Themes
HUC Connect Webinar
Tuesday, November 14, 2:00 p.m. ET
Discover how Frank Stella, the celebrated American painter, sculptor, and printmaker, has found inspiration in Jewish themes throughout his career, from his earliest minimalist paintings influenced by the Nazi propaganda newsreels of his childhood, his mixed-media “Polish Wooden Synagogue” works commemorating “the obliteration of a culture,” and his Had Gadya narrative abstractions expressing a universal, aspirational message of justice and hope.
With Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director, Dr. Bernard Heller Museum, HUC-JIR/New York.
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