Frank Stella - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • Frank Stella's Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, executed in 1974, hails from the artist's celebrated Diderot series, which builds upon his iconic Concentric Square format initiated in 1962. Here, Stella alternates between bands of white, darkening to gray as they approach the center, and a rich chromatic scale, which transitions from dark blues, to green, to highlighter yellows and oranges, and finally deep red. The painting was prominently featured in Frank Stella: Experiment and Change, a landmark retrospective presented by NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale from 2017 to 2018, where it was independently illustrated on the exhibition poster. A pivotal work in Stella's oeuvre, this painting represents a triumphant return to his geometric compositions after a brief hiatus in the late '60s, marked by an increased scale and complexity of coloration. Through Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, Stella navigates the delicate balance between formal cohesion and discordant color combinations, creating a visually striking tension within the composition. Confronting his viewer with a symphony of color and form, Stella invites them into a realm where order and expression converge in captivating harmony.


    The title of the present work, borrowed from a 1751 essay by the French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, adds a layer of conceptual depth to Stella's exploration. Lettre sur les sourds et muets, or "Letter on the Deaf and Dumb," resonates with Diderot's examination of non-verbal communication methods and their impact on human consciousness. In a similar vein to Diderot's exploration of alternative modes of expression, Stella's Diderot paintings prompt viewers to reconsider how they perceive and interpret art. Through the geometric abstraction of his work, Stella encourages viewers to look beyond conventional representations and engage with the visual language of shapes and colors. Moreover, Stella's interest in mathematics and geometry aligns with Diderot's broader exploration of the relationship between science, art, and perception.

    “My Painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there...What you see is what you see”
    —Frank Stella i

    Far from improvisational, Stella’s method in Lettre sur les sourds et muets II demonstrates a systematic utilization of both color and value scales. His use of mathematical principles to construct a visual composition, echoes Diderot's philosophical inquiries, suggesting a shared fascination with structured systems and their potential for communication and expression beyond linguistic confines. By titling the paintings after specific texts and collectively referring to the series as "the Diderot pictures," Stella playfully invokes what he terms "the notion of the critic," possibly alluding to his friend Michael Fried.ii Fried's criticism is renowned for its staunch opposition to the blurring of boundaries between the artwork and the act of viewing it, which he famously labeled "theatricality."iii


    While Stella's earlier works were predominantly monochromatic and works like Lettre sur les sourds et muets II certainly heralded a departure into a more daring color program, what was truly novel about the Diderot pictures was their monumental scale. The individual paintings from the Diderot series, the present work included, measure roughly 11 by 11 feet, with the double-square formats being twice as wide. Stella was eager to observe how the configurations of stripes would interact with these daring new proportions, as evidenced by his decision to keep the size of the stripe consistent with his earlier, smaller-scale paintings. The effect is trifold: it enhances the impression of immense size, exemplifies Stella’s ability to evoke a range of emotional responses from the viewer, and allows for more proximate subdivisions of hue and value. This shift lends the Diderot paintings an intimation of ambiguous "schematic illusionism," which is emphasized by the increase in scale, and is likely what Stella had in mind when he later reflected that he particularly liked the Diderot pictures "because they had a little hint of the extravagant—but in a very simple way that I think added to their effect."iv


    As a progenitor of Minimalism, Stella laid out principles essential to the ongoing practice of painting about painting. He rejected the subjective interpretations favored by Abstract Expressionists, emphasizing instead that “only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. What you see is what you see.”v Despite this, Stella's work retains a human touch, evident in the hand-painted bands of primed canvas between colors that draw the viewer into the painting, hinting at the artist's presence behind the work. Stella gives as he pulls away, subtly showing his hand while refusing to represent an outside reality and beckoning his viewer to become a part of the space, thus engaging with the minimalist ambition to involve the viewer in responding to only what is directly in front of them.


    Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.

    “For me, the spiritual resides in Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky, they are my spiritual basis. I mean my complete belief and commitment and appreciation of their work allows me to go forward. I can take that as given and I believe in it.”
    —Frank Stella vi

    A central black square, reminiscent of Stella's earlier Black Paintings, anchors the present composition, harmonizing the outermost band with the innermost point and engendering a dynamic interplay between the grayscale and colored bands. Aligning himself with the vision outlined by Kazimir Malevich in his 1913 painting Black Square, Stella made his intention clear: he aimed to completely abandon the depiction of reality and instead forge a new realm of shapes and forms. In Malevich’s 1927 book The Non-Objective World, he wrote: “…trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.”vii  As Stella's primary focus in his art was composition and maintaining perfect symmetry, the adoption of the concentric square motif marked a significant moment in his artistic development, signifying a fundamental shift in his creative approach and philosophy. "The concentric square format is about as neutral and simple as you can get," the artist explained. "It’s a powerful pictorial image that you can use, abuse, or even work against to the point of ignoring it. It possesses a strength that’s almost indestructible – at least for me."viii Lettre sur les sourds et muets II evokes the essence of Malevich's (in)famous icon, embodying a departure from representational art towards abstraction and the exploration of pure form and color.


    This departure from traditional representation towards abstraction invites a dialogue with Bauhaus color theorist Josef Albers, who is also known for his exploration of geometric forms, particularly the square. Stella was familiar with Albers’ painting practice from his days at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the early '50s when European abstraction dominated studio art. He also cites Albers’ original installation of the geometric 20th-century mural, Manhattan, 1963, as a major influence on his work thereafter. Specifically speaking to his interest in Albers’ elimination of gesture and mastery of geometry, he explains “[In] Albers’ mural in Grand Central called Manhattan [he] has a big advantage. He doesn’t have to carry the gesture anywhere. You could describe it as Formica rectangles in red, white, and black and you can think of it in terms of colors, and space, and how you’re going to put things together and it's very hard to believe that such a mechanical system can carry such a large space… you could say that Albers’s geometry…laid out in such a ferocious and commanding way is what dictates the structure behind the work that I do.”ix In Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, the influence of Albers’ Manhattan is unmistakable, evident in both its monumental scale and adherence to strict geometric principles. Both artists exhibit a shared aesthetic verisimilitude and a keen sense of pictorial space, conveying their message through a mutual lexicon of geometric grandeur and visual rhythm.


    [Left] Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    [Right] Josef Albers, Manhattan, ca. 1963. Photograph of original mural installed in the Pan Am Building, New York City). Image/Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Discussing the Diderot series within the context of his broader artistic output, Stella emphasizes the role of these paintings as a guiding anchor amidst his more experimental works, saying “The effect of doing [the paintings] ‘by the numbers,’ so to say, gave me a kind of guide in my work as a whole… The Concentric Squares created a pretty high, pretty tough pictorial standard. Their simple, rather humbling effect—almost a numbing power—became a sort of ‘control’ against which my increasing tendency in the seventies to be extravagant could be measured.”x


    Stella's artistic evolution is characterized by his strategic use of each series as a steppingstone to the next phase of his creative journey, a process exemplified in the Diderot paintings. Serving as a touchstone for his transition from the restrained aesthetic of the '70s to the more liberated style of the '80s, these works mark a significant milestone in Stella's artistic development. Lettre sur les sourds et muets II, in particular, can be seen as a deliberate counterbalance to the openness and complexity of his previous Polish Village series from the past three years. Additionally, within this work lies a foreshadowing of Stella's later emphasis on the pictorial rectangle, a motif evident in his Brazilian series from the mid-1970s—large and elaborate metal constructions that Stella considered paintings, aesthetically influenced by the sharp angles and clustered planes of Russian Constructivism. Standing before this monumental canvas, the viewer is confronted with Lettre sur les sourds et muets II extraordinary hypnotic power and reminded of Stella's words: "to me, the thrill, or the meat of the thing, is the actual painting."xi


    i Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, pp. 41-42.

    ii Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. Cat., New York, 1987, p. 43.

    iii Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella's Irregular Polygons,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, pp. 88–89

    iv Frank Stella, quoted in Ibid., p. 52.

    v Frank Stella, quoted in Hilton Kramer, “Frank Stella: What You See is What You See,” New York Times, December 10, 1967, online.

    vi Frank Stella, quoted in Norbert Lynton, “Interview with Frank Stella: “I started, and I think I am going to finish, as a committed abstractionist,” The Art Newspaper, June 30, 1999, online.

    vii Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism, 1926.

    viii Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella, 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988. p. 48.

    ix Frank Stella, quoted in Megan O’Grady, “Notes on the Culture: The Constellation of Frank Stella,” The New York Times, T Magazine, March 18, 2020.

    x Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella, 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988. p. 48.

    xi Ibid, p. 37.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 2017

    • Exhibited

      Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Richard Meier, Frank Stella: Arte e Architettura, July 8–August 30, 1993, pp. 267, 271 (illustrated, p. 271)
      Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; Munich, Haus der Kunst, Frank Stella, September 26, 1995–April 21, 1996, p. 231
      Brussels, Charles Riva Collection, Frank Stella, April 19–November 3, 2017
      Fort Lauderdale, NSU Art Museum, Frank Stella: Experiment and Change, November 12, 2017–July 29, 2018 (illustrated on the exhibition poster)

    • Literature

      Andrianna Campbell, Kate Nesin, Lucas Blalock and Terry Richardson, Frank Stella, New York, 2017, pp. 17, 158 (illustrated, p. 17)
      Denise Colson, “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change,” Art District, 2017, online (NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, 2017, installation view illustrated)
      Ted Loos, “Editor’s Pick: Frank Stella on Six Decades of Experimentation and Change,” 1st Dibs, 2017, online (illustrated)
      “Frank Stella: Experiment and Change at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, November 12, 2017 – July 29, 2018,” Arts Summary: A Visual Journal, August 23, 2017, online (NSU Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, 2017, installation view illustrated)
      Brainard Carey, “Bonnie Clearwater,” Praxis Interview Magazine, Yale University Radio, October 31, 2017, online (installation view illustrated)
      Noah Becker, “At 81, Frank Stella is Still America’s Most Experimental Artist,” Vice, November 9, 2017, online (installation view illustrated)
      Sandra Schulman, “Can’t-miss Stella show stuns in Fort Lauderdale,” Palm Beach Arts Paper, November 13, 2017, online (installation view illustrated)
      Andrew Russeth, “Frank Stella Takes to the Sky,” ARTnews, December 5, 2017, online
      American Master Frank Stella: Polish Villages, exh. cat., Lévy Gorvy, Hong Kong, 2019, pp. 17, 47 (illustrated, p. 17)
      Hugues Cayrade, “Charles Riva and the Art of Scaling Down,” La Gazette Drouot, September 23, 2020, online (Charles Riva Collection, Brussels, 2017, installation view partially illustrated)

    • 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


Lettre sur les sourds et muets II

synthetic polymer paint on canvas
140 7/8 x 140 7/8 in. (357.8 x 357.8 cm)
Painted in 1974.

Full Cataloguing

$5,000,000 - 7,000,000 

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024