Mad Horse Dealer Spurs Stella, Calatrava to Make Art Lampshade

Frank Stella
U.S. artist Frank Stella. His first collaboration with the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is on show at Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie. "The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain" is on display through Aug. 14. Photographer: Erik Hesmerg/Neue Nationalgalerie via Bloomberg

Drivers passing Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie may be forgiven for thinking that a vast new lampshade is hanging in the glass-walled foyer of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s museum.

In fact it’s the first collaboration between two titans of the art world -- the U.S. artist Frank Stella and the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Called “Michael Kohlhaas Curtain,” Stella’s painting was inspired by a short story by Heinrich von Kleist, who died 200 years ago and is the subject of numerous events and exhibitions this year.

Kleist shot his sick friend Henriette Vogel and turned the gun on himself in a suicide pact on the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee in Berlin. “Michael Kohlhaas,” one of his best-known works, is the hair-raising tale of an honest 16th-century horse-dealer who resorts to terrorism in his quest for justice after a corrupt nobleman abuses two of his steeds.

“Kleist exerts a force it is hard to get away from,” Stella said at the opening. “His stories have the characteristics of cinematography, they are easily translated into action.”

Stella’s 30-meter-long painting is abstract with no direct reference to the story, yet the vivid colors and bold, interlocking shapes suggest drama and action. Calatrava mounted it on a circular frame, securing the canvas like a tarpaulin in a cylindrical shape and suspending it a couple of meters above the ground. Painted on two sides, the structure allows the viewer to enter and see both sides of the canvas.

Stella, 74, said he’s “not worried about it being more or less of a painting than it was in my studio.”

Prison Grid

I’m not convinced. It would have more force stretched out so the whole painting is visible at once, or at least one side of the canvas.

Calatrava’s curving metal grid around it distances the viewer from the art, parceling it into sections and imprisoning it. The frame is beautiful in its own right, but it doesn’t do much for the painting.

Stella fans should head down to the underground part of the museum and look at his joint show with El Lissitzky, “Chad Gadya.” The Jewish nursery rhyme, “One Little Goat” in English, recounts a series of disasters -- first a goat is eaten by a cat, then a dog comes and bites the cat, and so on until God finally intervenes to smite the Angel of Death.

Lissitzky’s charming 1919 color lithographs illustrating the rhyme are displayed alongside Stella’s vibrant abstract graphics, dating from 1982 to 1984.

“The Michael Kohlhaas Curtain” is on show at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin through Aug. 14. For more information, go to

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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