Frank Stella - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 13, 2015 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private Collection, United States

  • Catalogue Essay

    When Frank Stella arrived in New York in the late 1950s, the gestural mark-making of Pollock and Kline reigned supreme. Much as he admired their work, the young artist sought to break with tradition; as he puts it, “you can’t be an abstract expressionist if you’re born 20 or 30 years too late. It’s over before you get there.” In the shadow cast by these luminaries, Stella began to develop his own aesthetic. Like the abstract expressionists, he had little interest in representation; according to his theorisations, a painting was “a flat surface with paint on it –nothing more.” Unlike his predecessors, however, he rid his work of noise and gesture; his early compositions were neat, his palettes terse, and his surfaces clean. Soon though, Stella moved away from cool minimalism. Retaining an interest in the painting as object, he increasingly began to work with sculpture, or as he put it “painting cut out and stood up somewhere.” From the 1970s, his work became more expansive both geometrically and emotionally. Much of his sculptural work, as the present lot, abounds with depth and color; space opens up in a way that feels at once celebratory and revelatory. At 78, Frank Stella is one of the most important artists of his generation; creating work that runs the gamut from the reserved to the frenetic, his influence is felt from Minimalism to Neo-Expressionism.

    In 1959, shortly after moving to New York, Stella’s work was included in a MoMA exhibition entitled “Sixteen Americans.” Exhibited alongside Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and his close friend Jasper Johns were Stella’s now-coveted Black Paintings. In this series, Stella did away with the tradition of preliminary sketches, letting the brush stroke create its own path over the structure of the canvas. These paintings, in which bands of black house paint are directly painted onto an unprimed canvas, were initially decried as dull. But history has proved the critics wrong; the paintings’ sleek lines and smooth surfaces expressed a cool detachment, anticipating a new wave of Minimalist experimentation. Stella’s major departure from his early work came in the mid-1960s with his Irregular Polygons series; consisting of a staggering 44 canvases, the geometrically aberrant pieces provided a platform for experimentation in fields of color and secured his 1970 retrospective at MoMA. Aged 33, Stella was the youngest artist to be honored by the institution in this way, a record which was overshadowed in 1987 when he became the first artist to be given a second retrospective at the museum in his lifetime. The works produced after Stella’s first retrospective again marked a departure in his practice: at this time, he began experimenting with printmaking and began moving beyond the minimalist style that marked his early works. As a result, the series that followed were more dynamic, and while they retained their non-representational nature, they also became more expressive.

    The present lot finds Stella at his most expansive. A profusion of shapes protrude beyond the confines of the canvas. Both spatially and conceptually, the painterly form is extended, brought into conversation with sculpture. The palette is equally extensive; patches of bright color interlock with childlike naivety, suffusing the piece with festivity. The painting exists in a beguiling hinterland between forms in which conceptual and visual vitality collide. For all its modernity, though, the genealogy of the piece traces back to the turn of the Seventeenth Century. While in residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1982, Stella became entranced with the legacy of Caravaggio and the Baroque. This preoccupation looms large over the piece.

    In 1983, the same year that the present lot was created, Stella gave a lecture at Harvard University entitled Working Space. Subsequently published as a book, Stella outlined his project for reconsidered spatiality in contemporary painting. As he put it: “The question we must ask ourselves is: Can we find a mode of pictorial expression that will do for abstraction now what Caravaggio’s pictorial genius did for sixteenth-century natu¬ralism and its magnificent successors? The expectation is that the answer is yes, but first we have to try to understand what Caravaggio actually did in order to see if his accom¬plishment can help us.”

    Underpinning Stella’s interest in Caravaggio is in an interest in the creation of inhabitable pictorial space. Stella values the Renaissance painter’s ability to simulate depth and thereby enliven an image. He continues, “This gift of Caravaggio’s has a lot to say to emotion and psychology, but it also has a lot to say to painting today, especially to painterly abstraction. Caravaggio declares that pictorial drama is everything in art, and that drama must be played out with convincing illusionism. It is this lack of a convincing projective illusionism, the lack of self-contained space, lost in a misguided search for color (once called the primacy of color) that makes most close-valued, shallow-surfaced paintings of the past fifteen years so excruciatingly dull.”

    The present lot reveals the artist’s interest in “convincing illusionism.” Eschewing flatness in favor or relief, the piece approaches the viewer. It conjures space, and in so doing attains the vitality in which the artist is interested. In short, it is a dramatic piece. In Working Space, Stella challenged the foundations of abstraction –foundations that he had assisted in constructing –including flatness, immediacy and respecting the picture plane as a way to help it overcome its limitations. The present lot reveals a process of transformation and adjustment. It belongs to a period in which Stella was exploring three-dimensionality and incorporating sculptural forms such as cones, waves, and pillars into his paintings, creating a series of multidimensional works that were a hybrid of painting and construction. At this time, Stella changed his production methods as well. No longer did he paint directly onto the canvas, but through the utilization of collage, he created maquettes that were then enlarged and recreated to emphasize the basic elements of painting –color, shape and composition. Composed of illusionistic detail, Stella endowed his reliefs with a new kind of space. Rather than allowing line to create illusionary volume, Stella reduced his image through the language of graphics, fusing the image and object as one by means of color and composition. Through his exploration and experimentation of Baroque pictorial space, Stella was able to create a new space that was dynamically illusionistic.

    For over half a century Stella has continued to evolve his practice and contest traditional rules and regulations of painting, as well as abstraction. By de-emphasizing gesture, Stella pushed abstraction towards a minimalist aesthetic, which he then dismissed in favor of a more dynamic and expressive approach. However, regardless of which series or era in which they were produced, Stella’s works retained a desire to undermine illusionistic space through flat form, line and color, allocating them pure abstraction. Through his distinctly Modern aesthetic, Stella continuously championed art as a cerebral endeavor, insisting that his works require time and patience to be appreciated, a vein that rings true when looking back on his extensive body of work. Stella’s stylistic innovations and prolific oeuvre are what have positioned him to be one of the most important American artists of the twentieth century. Le prima spada e l’ultima scopa finds the artists at a significant point in his career, and the sense of critical reevaluation is reflected in the energy and vibrancy of the piece.

  • Artist Biography

    Frank Stella

    American • 1936 - N/A

    Recognized as one of the most important postwar American artists, Frank Stella pioneered Minimalism with his monochrome “Black Paintings” of the late 1950s that marked a decisive departure from Abstract Expressionism. Concerned with the formal over representative elements of painting, Stella has developed a rich oeuvre reflecting his explorations on painting as an object through his investigations on color, shape, and composition. By the 1960s, Stella turned to bright colors and worked with shaped canvases that radically deemed form itself as content. After briefly experimenting with relief and collage, he ultimately turned to freestanding large-scale sculptures and architectural projects. Still working today in New York City, Stella remains the youngest artist to have had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 and the first living artist to have had another the following decade in 1987.

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La prima spada e l'ultima scopa

synthetic polymer paint on aluminum honeycomb panels and acrylic panel
149 1/2 x 136 1/4 x 34 in. (379.7 x 346.1 x 86.4 cm)

$600,000 - 800,000 

Sold for $725,000

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Amanda Stoffel
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New York
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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm