Frank Stella: A Remembrance

Frank Stella (left, split-stepping) squared off against Hashim Khan in an exhibition at Park Place in the 1980s.

By James Zug

Over the decades, squash has been blessed with dozens of world-famous people who enjoy playing the game: William Shatner, Eartha Kitt, Tom Brokaw, Leonard Bernstein, Brian DePalma, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Murphy, Mick Jagger, Tom Seaver, Ming Tsai, Hugh Jackman.

Arguably, it was Frank Stella who had the greatest impact on squash in America. The internationally renowned abstract artist died earlier this month at the age of eighty-seven. He was an art-world legend, with one-man shows and retrospectives at major galleries and museums; in 1970 at the age thirty-three, he had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, still the youngest artist ever to receive that honor.

Stella was familiar with squash, having gone to Phillips Academy in Andover and then Princeton, graduating in 1958, but he only started playing regularly in the early 1980s. He took up the game when he hurt his back opening a garage. He was in his mid-forties, hoping to get some exercise and tennis seems no longer an option. He instantly fell in love. He played softball three days a week at Park Place, the club down on Wall Street. He played with a racquet strung with five different bright colors—a sort of Piet Mondrian look. He later built a squash court at his horse farm in upstate New York.

He was a C-player. “When I started playing, I have to admit I really thought I would be a great player,” he told Susan Orleans of the New Yorker in 1987. “In art, you can keep getting better, but in squash you hit your level and that’s just about it. Curtains. You’re finished. I hit my limit at about forty minutes of mediocre playing.”

Reporters regularly asked him what the famous artist saw at the intersection of art and squash. In 1986 he told Nicholas Dawidoff, a Sports Illustrated writer: “The advantage of squash is that I can forget about painting. A white blank and a ball; you don’t know where you are. It’s like a snowstorm. There is something satisfying about the flow of movement, about constantly keeping the squash ball humming. Similarly, when things are flowing, you know you are painting well…. I’m not tempted to paint squash scenes. All squash has tempted me to do is break my racquet.”

John Nimick with Frank Stella

But Stella went far beyond playing and providing witty bon mots to the media. He helped run pro squash tournaments. With his support, Park Place hosted the men’s and women’s U.S. Professional Softball Championships in 1986 and 1987. These events included the top softball stars like Jahangir Khan, Ross Norman, Lisa Opie and Heather Wallace. That same year he went a step further. He became a tournament director, helping put the 1987 U.S. Open on at the Palladium, a New York disco next door to his art studio on Fourteenth Street. He helped gather a $50,000 prize money fund, designed the event’s poster (still one of the most vivid tournament posters in history) and appeared in an exhibition at the tournament.

When the Tournament of Champions arrived in New York two years later, Stella became a major supporter. He was a constant, avuncular presence in the ToC stands for decades, giving out unsolicited coaching advice to players from his box seat. He designed the 2007 ToC winner’s trophies, and in 2024 he donated a permanent ToC trophy, a stunning silvery sculpture.  “Frank was a patron saint of our sport and various efforts to promote squash in New York City for forty years,” said John Nimick, the director of the Tournament of Champions. “He was a player, promoter, sponsor and creator of our perpetual trophy. Frank admired Grand Central Terminal and loved watching squash there. He will be greatly missed.”

Stella had close relationships with many squash players. He mentored Anders Wahlstedt, the Swedish-American squash star. “I first met Frank in 1987 at Park Place and we became good friends,” Wahlstedt said. “He showed me his studio. When I started my own art gallery, he was an incredible supporter. Like with his art, he was ahead of the curve with squash. Softball’s real beginning in this country, as far as I am concerned, started when Jahangir Khan and Ross Norman came over to play at no other place but Park Place in Frank’s tournament.”

In 2022 Stella named a new squash court at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center to honor another old squash friend, Tom Page. “Frank was a transformational figure for squash,” said Ned Edwards, the executive director of the U.S. Squash Foundation. “He was one of ours who was also one of the most highly regarded American artists of the last century. He made the softball wave hip in the late 1980s. His generosity was remarkable when he single-handedly named a court for Tom Page at the Specter Center. Frank was humble and pure about his love for squash.”