Sunday, March 11, 2001

Whale of a life

NKU professor turns obsession with Melville into new book on modern artist

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bob Wallace is the first to admit it: He is one plenty obsessed kind of guy. Running unchecked for 10 years.

        At the heart of the obsession: Novelist Herman Melville, dead since 1891, and artist Frank Stella, alive, well and working abstract magic in New York.

[photo] Bob Wallace holds his book about artist Frank Stella.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        It took the publication of Mr. Wallace's fifth book, Frank Stella's Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes (University of Michigan Press; $69.50), to cool the flames.

        “I guess I'm like Captain Ahab, that way. I got a taste and couldn't let go,” says the 56-year-old Bellevue resident and Northern Kentucky University Regents Professor of Literature and Language.

Visual awareness

        His evolution into a modern Ahab started in 1989 when he stumbled into a Carl Solway Gallery exhibit of paintings by Mr. Stella. The abstract artist was four years into his 12-year Moby-Dick project, 266 works inspired by 135 chapter titles in Melville's novel.

        Back then, the series was all paintings. Today, the finished project is paintings and mixed media. Mr. Wallace's book is the first time the entire body has been brought together in one place.

        “I didn't know who Stella was. But I do know Melville, and I've always been struck by his incredible awareness of visual arts. I had researched him earlier and found he collected prints — 440 of them, 26 by J.M.W. Turner. The result of that was my 600-page book Melville and Turner.

        But Turner was an old obsession. A new one had taken hold.

        Taken such a firm hold it even accompanied Mr. Wallace into the classroom where he teaches Melville, but not without a dose of Mr. Stella.

        “I show students slides and ask them to interpret. To look, think and conclude. Both Melville and Stella are very similar in that they never tell you what to think. They always let the perceiver draw his own conclusions.

        “The cover of the book, for example, is "The Whiteness of the Whale.' Stella doesn't even try to depict a whale — it's a perceptual issue with him. But if you read Melville, it's a perceptual issue with him, too, although neither of them say it.

        “It gives students a rare and wonderful insight into Melville, his characters and Stella as well.”

        Goodness knows it gave a wonderful insight to Hofstra University professor John Bryant, who calls it “a remarkable event . . . combines the thought of two of America's greatest artists to reveal their mutual, boundary crossing aesthetics.”

Comparative art

        Mr. Wallace has a history with this boundary thing — books that compare the works of artists from two completely different media and find all kinds of startling similarities.

        His first book, Jane Austen and Mozart, took the position that Austen is to words what Mozart is to notes. His second, Emily Bronte and Beethoven, took the same position, that Bronte used words and sentences exactly the way Beethoven used notes and musical phrasings.

        He does this, he says, “because I love to compare two different art forms and see what they have in common. In a comparison of styles, you can learn a lot by juxtaposing works.

        “Once you start, you discover wonderful parallels on all sorts of levels — the aesthetic, structural, thematic. That discovery process gets you hooked.

        “The thing is, you see the way Stella uses the chapter titles, you see the work, you read the chapter and it makes you want to think.”

        Starting to feel obsessed again, Professor?

        “In so many ways. Once I decided to do the book, I had to track down all the works. You have to be obsessed to do something like that. Then I set out to acquire every catalog from every exhibit. That's another fixation.

        “Seeing as many of the works as possible in person, that was another obsession. And I just love to talk to people like the guards in building lobbies where one of the larger works stand, to get a take from someone who sees it everyday.

        “Lord, I even went to the New York Aquarium to see the Beluga whales that gave Stella the idea.”

Rising popularity

        Frank Stella has had lots of ideas since then, enough to make him one of the busiest modern artists working today.

        So busy that you see his stuff all over the place . . . You see his murals, domes and decorative touches all over the Prince of Wales Theater in Toronto. You see his bandshell in the Miami Heat arena. You'll soon see his 34-foot Prince of Hamburg sculpture in Washington, D.C. You see medallions he designed inlaid in the floor at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

        He was almost too busy to meet Mr. Wallace. “This was back in back in 1991. I had been writing the gallery representing him, asking for a meeting, and they kept saying how busy he was.

        “Then I found out there was a retrospective showing in Kitakyushu, Japan, and that he was going to be there. The gallery warned me not to get my hopes up, but I went anyway.

        “The show was in three rooms and I was in the first taking notes. He walked in and said, "You must be from Kentucky.' I guess he had seen my letters. We've talked 15 or 20 times since then.”

        About the book? “He's seen it, and seems very happy with it.

        “I had two goals when I started this. To compare the visual art and the novel, something even art critics who have been following him for years have ignored, and to bring all the works together in one place. That notion seemed to please him.”

        So then, off to a new obsession now are we?

        “Still on one of my old ones. The Lady Norse (NKU's female basketball team). I go to every game I possibly can and hurt when I have to miss. I track every play and keep score too.”

       Bob Wallace will discuss his book at the Mercantile Library's Literary Luncheon at noon Tuesday. Free, but reservations required by noon Monday. Box lunch available at 11:30 a.m. for $7.50. 621-0717.


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