Frank Stella | East Campus

Frank Stella

Heads or Tails, 1988

Acrylic and enamel on aluminum

Wall Relief

134 in. x 104 in. x 38.5 in. (340.36 cm x 264.16 cm x 97.79 cm)

Gift of Elliot K. Wolk, MIT Class of 1957

An acrylic and enamel work on aluminum, Heads or Tails is one of a series of 138 designs inspired by Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Each of the pieces in the series corresponds to a chapter in the novel; Heads or Tails corresponds to Chapter 90, in which Melville describes the head and tail of the great whale.

While one of the three main pieces of the work is obviously a tail-like shape, the other forms, mounted higher, are more abstract. “These two pieces are not literal equivalents, but each is made to function as a whale’s head,” Professor Robert K. Wallace wrote. He cautions the viewer against making a strict connection between the forms and the descriptions in the novel: “Stella invites us to make our own association with the pieces.” The artist has completed more than 137 works in the Moby Dick series since 1985, intending to honor the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication.

Building Number: E51

Accession Number: 1997.016

Audio Transcript

This is Heads or Tails by Frank Stella. Former List public art curator Patricia Fuller.

"Frank Stella came to prominence as a painter in the late 1960s. And at first, he was known for geometric painting and later, a series of austere black paintings. His work was rigorously formal and minimalist in the sense of reducing the elements to as few as possible."

But by the time of this work from 1988, Stella had long been experimenting with color in three dimensions. Here, his brashly colored wall-relief comprises contrasting cutout shapes of aluminum, an explosive juxtaposition of curves, lines, and irregular shapes. It is one in a series of 138 works inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Each piece corresponds to a chapter in the novel.

Heads or Tails relates to chapter 90 in which Melville describes the head and tail of the great whale. The bottom of the sculpture has a fish tail shape. Above it, the forms swirling and leaping over each other evoke a world of water, fish, and birds in motion. But Stella would caution the viewer against any literal connections between the novel and this piece. You can find commentary on Stella's other work at MIT on the List's website.