Frank Stella is known for the large scale of his work, and for the exuberant, kinetic way he uses colors and forms. Last month, Brooklyn-based artist McKendree Key used these formal attributes as jumping-off points for a new project in which play was a primary aim. Collaborating with the Whitney’s Education department and New York City teachers and students, Key designed and built a giant marble run in the Whitney’s third-floor theater that translated the aesthetic of Stella's paintings into a physical experience. On Frank Stella Family Day, one of a series of ongoing family programs, kids and parents were invited to spend the day interacting with the construction, rearranging its columns, tubes, and buckets, and watching the effects.
Watch a video documenting the project, and read thoughts from Key on the spirit of experimentation that inspired it.
Inspired by the movement, forms, and colors in Frank Stella’s work, Brooklyn-based artist McKendree Key designed a large-scale marble run. For Key, Stella’s work often seems like a journey for the eye; the marble run echoed this concept. Families were invited to interact, play, and experiment with it, creating a physical experience related to Stella’s paintings.
How did you become interested in marble runs? How did the idea to create a giant one come about?
I remember loving marble runs as a kid and have wanted to make a giant one for a long time. Maybe it has something to do with growing up in the city, but marble runs seem to represent a microcosm of the urban world we live in—people in constant motion, continually crossing paths, backtracking, and creating new routes for transport.
What part of this process is most exciting to you?
It’s very exciting to work large-scale on something like this. The size of the run really forces us to interact with the piece and the space it’s in.
How does this project compare to other installations you’ve done?
Much of my work deals with scale and traversing space. I create spaces for interaction and set up compositions that can be manipulated by nature, people, or other elements.
The marble run was installed during Frank Stella: A Retrospective. Do you see any affinities between his paintings or sculptures and this project?
Of course. For me, Stella’s work is all about movement; the way your eye moves across the work, and is drawn from one area of the piece to the next. So many of his paintings also evoke motion—for example the Moby-Dick series that evokes a whale thrashing around in water. The way the paintings take up space and protrude into our physical space as we engage with them is something that I thought a lot about when creating the marble run.
Many of your works deal with how spaces are used. The Whitney’s theater was built with a wide range of purposes in mind. What has it been like to build a project in this space?
It’s an amazing space—one that inspired me from the moment I saw it. It’s great to see a theatre space used in such a free way. What I love about it is the size and of course, the view. Indeed, it presents multiple possibilities.
You’ve worked with children in many institutions, including the Whitney. When you’re setting out to make a work that kids and families will engage with, how much do you think about the audience, and how does this inform your process?
This piece hinges on interaction. So the piece had to be impactful at both a large scale and smaller scale. I wanted it to make an immediate impact because of its size, but also be accessible enough so that kids could literally take things into their own hands.
Do you notice differences between the way kids and adults interact with the work? Did anything surprise you about the way people engaged?
Kids spend a lot of time in controlled situations, where they learn to follow the rules, listen to adults, and ultimately produce what adults want. I love that with the marble run, the kids ran the show. They created systems, checks and balances, and even a color-coding structure. It was time for the adults to really sit back and let the kids take over. We could never have thought of the things the kids thought of!
At a marathon reading of Moby-Dick that took place among paintings from Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick series, writers and artists described the pursuits that elude them.