Frank Stella - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Thursday, June 24, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Executed in 1998 as part of the artist’s extensive Heinrich von Kleist series, Frank Stella’s Seppy borrows its title from the name of a young character in the German writer’s 19th century novella The Betrothal of Santo Domingo. While most of Stella’s works that are inspired from literature respond to entire stories, chapters, or broad passages, Seppy is a unique instance where Stella employed a single character as his subject. Taking the young titular character as a point of departure in the present work, Seppy marks a distinctive moment within the artist’s spectacular oeuvre and is a testament to the special importance of the extensive Betrothal of Santo Domingo sub-series in Stella’s practice. 




    The Story of Seppy


    Written in 1810 just years after the Haitian Revolution, The Betrothal of Santo Domingo takes place in 1803 on the Caribbean island in the midst of a slave revolution. In the story, von Kleist addresses an array of complex issues from what would today be considered to be an anti-colonialist viewpoint. In the Heinrich von Kleist series, Stella engaged several literary sources, but none more extensively than The Betrothal of Santo Domingo: while Stella produced one work in response to most literary sources in the Heinrich von Kleist series, the artist created 15 just to interrogate The Betrothal of Santo Domingo. Using as source material various elements from the story, such as fragments of dialogue, descriptions of the natural landscape, and certain characters from the text, the artist betrayed an ardent interest in von Kleist’s novel. “Somehow ‘Santo Domingo’ feels more contemporary [than von Kleist’s other novella, Michael Koolhaas],” Stella expressed. “The story is the most American of the stories. You have the French Revolution and slavery–revolution and the slave–and that is the story of America.”i


    In The Betrothal of Santo Domingo, the character Seppy is a young boy—just five years old—who is the illegitimate son of the leader of the slave revolt. Enslaved on the plantation with his older brother Nanky, the two children are caught up in the storm of revolutionary conflict, their youth defined by racial strife and the violence brought about by ongoing colonial oppression and the revolt against its tyranny. Eventually taken hostage and used as a bargaining piece by opposing forces, Seppy is ultimately defined not by his own goals, ideas, or personal agency, but rather the conflict of the world around him and the desires and beliefs of others.

    "[The Betrothal of Santo Domingo] is the story of America."
    —Frank Stella

    From his Moby Dick series to the Pillars and Cones chapter, Stella has frequently found inspiration for his works in literary source. Deeply committed to abstraction, Stella’s works such as Seppy are never mere illustrations, but rather they relate to their poetic origins by using abstract shapes and colors that respond to and evoke the conceptual and emotional content of their sources. In Seppy, Stella’s choice to leave the casting gates intact suggests that the work is still in the process of being formed, much like the young character Seppy who has yet to come into his own. Like other series, Stella consistently implements formal elements across the works inspired by The Betrothal of Santo Domingo, such as the curling smoke-ring shape and the juxtaposition between painted areas and stark metallic surfaces. Filled with abundant dynamism, Stella’s work hints at the tiny stature of the boy, who despite his small scale plays a significant role in the plot of The Betrothal of Santo Domingo.




    Seppy stands as a testament to Stella’s intense contemplation of a story dealing with complex issues that are still quite relevant to our contemporary world. A distinctive work within Stella’s practice for its treatment of an individual literary character, Seppy demonstrates Stella’s ability to fluidly adapt the content of literature to his artwork and remains one of his greatest contributions to the history of post-war representation more broadly. 


    i Frank Stella, quoted in Heinrich von Kleist by Frank Stella. Werkverzeichnis der Heinrich von Kleist-Serie, exh. cat., Galerie der Jenoptik AG, Jena, 2001, vol. 1, no. L, p. 222.

    • Provenance

      Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London (acquired directly from the artist)
      Sperone Westwater, New York (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Literature

      Heinrich von Kleist by Frank Stella. Werkverzeichnis der Heinrich von Kleist-Serie, exh. cat., Galerie der Jenoptik AG, Jena, 2001, vol. 1, no. L, pp. 106, 223 (illustrated, p. 107)

    • 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 from an Esteemed Private Collection, Europe



mixed media on cast aluminum
53 x 51 7/8 x 36 1/4 in. (134.6 x 131.8 x 92.1 cm)
Executed in 1998.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $252,000

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021