Frank Stella - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 16, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Frank Stella, 'Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum', Lot 26

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 16 May 2019

  • Provenance

    Manny Silverman Gallery, Los Angeles
    Private Collection, Los Angeles (acquired in 1988)
    Sotheby’s S|2, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    New York, Sotheby’s S|2, Stella: A Selling Exhibition, November 5 - December 4, 2015

  • Catalogue Essay

    “The concentric square is just a powerful pictorial image. It’s so good that you can use it, abuse it, and even work against it to the point of ignoring it. It has a strength that’s almost indestructible – at least for me. It’s one of those givens, and it’s very hard for me not to paint it.” –Frank Stella

    The balance between precisely defined order and spectacular expression is strikingly realized in Frank Stella’s Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum, 1977. This dazzling painting offers a composition that is resolutely symmetrical and stable in Stella’s repetition of squares and schematic placement of colors, but is simultaneously compelling in its dynamic space and mesmerizing prismatic gradations. Stella famously claimed: “What you see is what you see” – suggesting his systematic approach to non-representational abstraction. However, the artist also qualified this statement by adding: “But the worthwhile qualities of painting are always going to be visual and emotional” (Frank Stella, quoted in William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, p. 43). With its even painting and clear articulation of the canvas’s symmetry and geometric proportions, Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum follows the aesthetic methods to which Stella committed himself. It compellingly exhibits order – though not predictability – based on its composition but is also visually stunning in its color and dimensions. At nearly 6 feet across, this decisively abstract painting relates directly to human scale, encompassing the viewer and establishing an optically dazzling presence.

    Moving to New York in 1958, Stella reacted to Abstract Expressionism by extending these artists’ explorations of scale and abstract form, but rejecting gestural improvisation and pictorial illusion. By doing so, he charted a new direction for nonrepresentational painting. In 1960, he laid out his philosophy of artmaking, discussing his approach to solving the problems he found inherent to painting: “I had to do something about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry – make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration symmetrically placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The solution I arrived at, and there are probably quite a few, although I only know of one other, color density, forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern” (Frank Stella, “The Pratt Lecture”, 1960 in Frank Stella: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2015, p. 153). Symmetry and repetition remained key to Stella’s exploration of the potentials of painting. Carrying through the approach that he had established in his early work, he used a house-painting brush to define systematically painted lines of even widths in Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum, creating a visually powerful symmetrical composition that confirms the square shape of his canvas while employing color gradation to eliminate the illusion of spatial depth.

    Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum demonstrates the ways in which Stella remained faithful to his rigorous approach while extending its possibilities. An ingenious distillation of the artist’s creative philosophy, the Concentric Square paintings are among the most celebrated and recognizable body of work within Stella’s oeuvre. Examples of these paintings are represented in major public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; New Orleans Museum of Art; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

    Stella recommitted himself to his compelling Concentric Square series in the mid-1970s, extending an approach that he had first developed in 1961. His return to square canvases occurred as he was beginning to produce complex relief works, revisiting his earlier format in a way that allowed him to judge the new directions in his practice. According to Stella, the Concentric Squares “became a sort of ‘control’ against which my increasing tendency in the seventies to be extravagant could be measured” (Frank Stella, quoted in William S. Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 48).

    Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum also represents a maturing of his style, as Stella explored new potentials of color and form within the parameters that he set himself. In his precisely defined Scramble works, he juxtaposes two systems of color in alternating concentric squares. Their title refers to the set that he designed for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Scramble in 1967, for which strips of canvas in the colors of the spectrum were mounted on vertical frames and moved around the stage by the dancers. In the Scramble paintings, Stella established another sort of dynamism through color, juxtaposing a prismatic spectrum with gradations of a selected color, including green, yellow, orange, red, violet, and gray. For the present painting, he used the resplendent power of blue in a range of values, compelling us to judge its effects relative to the colors of the rainbow.

    The title of Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum announces the chromatic order of its composition, which Stella used to determine the colors of the painting’s squares with two competing, or scrambled, schema that alternate within the squares. One system – descending blue values – begins at the outermost square with a dark blue, becoming lighter as it moves in smaller squares toward the middle of the painting. The other system – an ascending spectrum – moves from the innermost square outward, going through the spectrum in sequence: violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Stella followed the logic of these sequential systems, creating a painting that is both systematic and entrancing, with its mesmerizing spatial and chromatic interplay of warm and cool colors. The evident incompatibility of the two scrambled systems is also fascinating – demonstrated particularly in the third square from the center, which Stella painted in a dark saturated blue (as determined by its place in the spectrum). This square is the same color and tone as the outermost square (as determined by value), creating an area in which the logic of one system contradicts the logic of the other. By placing these two chromatic systems in the same painting, they challenge the viewer to comprehend Stella’s logic, making its intriguing composition all the more compelling.

    Stella’s exploration of form and color ingeniously relates to the aesthetic strategies of both Color Field painting and those of Minimalism, though without adhering to the precepts of either movement. For instance, we might compare the present painting to Sol LeWitt’s systematic definitions of color and form in his wall drawings. Whereas LeWitt regarded his art as conceptual, defining algorithmic instructions for making paintings that others could execute, Stella always painted his own works, understanding the painting process as integral to his work. As the artist explained, “to me, the thrill, or the meat of the thing, is the actual painting. I don’t get any thrill out of laying it out... I like the painting part, even when it’s difficult” (Frank Stella, quoted in William S. Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, p. 37). Though geometric and unmodulated in application, Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum clearly displays Stella’s emphasis on hand-painting. He defined its squares with crisp geometric lines and great precision, while avoiding being mechanical. Upon close inspection, his hand-painting process reveals itself in the concentric squares and the unpainted bands between them.

    The vivid hues of the present painting and their complex interactions corroborates Stella’s reputation as an inventive explorer of color and its visual effects. Paradoxically, however, he claimed not to be a colorist. According to Michael Auping, “Stella’s self-deprecating statement ‘I’m not a colorist’ refers to the fact that, for him, the function of color is not beauty, symbolism, or metaphor for its own sake. Within his abstractions, color is employed to manipulate our perception of space” (Michael Auping, “Phenomology of Frank”, in Frank Stella: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2015, p. 23). The astounding interrelations of color and space in Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum mark the success of Stella’s innovative approach to color and abstraction.

    Standing before Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum, the viewer is confronted with the painting’s extraordinary hypnotic power, as its intense colors push and pull, receding and advancing in kaleidoscopic brilliance. At the same time, the rigor of his approach remains fully evident. Precisely defined by Stella through two systems of color into concentric squares, it is both dynamic and stable. Visibly and conceptually stunning, its compelling forms confirm him as one of the most original artists of our time.

  • Artist Biography

    Frank Stella

    American • 1936 - N/A

    One of the most important living artists, Frank Stella is recognized as the most significant painter that transitioned from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism. He believes that the painting should be the central object of interest rather than represenative of some subject outside of the work. Stella experimented with relief and created sculptural pieces with prominent properties of collage included. Rejecting the normalities of Minimalism, the artist transformed his style in a way that inspired those who had lost hope for the practice. Stella lives in Malden, Massachusetts and is based in New York and Rock Tavern, New York.

    View More Works

Property of an Important Private Collector, Europe


Scramble: Descending Blue Values/Ascending Spectrum

signed and dated “F. Stella ‘77” on the overlap; further signed, titled and dated “R SCRAMBLE: DESCENDING BLUE VALUES/ASCENDING SPECTRUM F. Stella ‘77” on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas
69 x 69 in. (175.3 x 175.3 cm.)
Painted in 1977.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $3,020,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 16 May | On View at 432 and 450 Park Avenue