Frank Stella - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 13, 2014 | Phillips
  • Video

    FRANK STELLA 'Concentric Square', 1966

    "For Stella the simplicity of the geometrically balanced form of the square allowed him to explore the full range of visual tension that the colors allowed..." Contemporary Art Senior Specialist Zach Miner discusses Frank Stella's 'Concentric Square', 1966. from our 13 November Evening Sale.

  • Provenance

    Lawrence Rubin, New York
    Blum Helman Gallery, New York
    Private Collection, Boston

  • Exhibited

    Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Collects, October 22, 1987 - February 1, 1987

  • Catalogue Essay

    "The concentric square format is about as neutral and as simple as you can get. It's just a powerful pictorial image. It's so goof 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." Frank Stella, 1987

    In the mid-twentieth century, Frank Stella pioneered a reductive approach that would later define a generation of Minimalism and Post-Painterly Abstraction. In its purity of form, Concentric Square, from 1966 epitomizes the aesthetics of this groundbreaking vision. In turning away from the subjectivity of Abstract Expressionism and the mysticism of Color Field Painting, Stella’s oeuvre marks a crucial moment in the trajectory of contemporary representation.

    In Concentric Square, Stella’s radical new composition is executed with startling precision. Devoid of external meaning or symbolism, the painting presents a formal arrangement of concentric squares. Stella’s methodology is exacting: each geometrical ring is painted in flat, unmixed and saturated color. The lines are hard-edged to the point of completely negating any trace of the artist’s paintbrush. Synthetically pure colors – crimson red, blazing orange, saffron yellow, lime green, indigo blue and deep purple – define each strip. The order of the hues is perfectly symmetrical, from the outer edge to the center. Red begins in the very middle and borders the outside. Orange follows, then yellow, then green. Purple is not repeated twice, occupying the central ring of the composition. This arrangement allows the rings to oscillate, radiating out from the center and reverberating back again. Stella’s colors are applied straight from the tube. However, when the tones are perceived in unison by the viewer’s eye they begin to mix and intermingle optically. The relative relationship between one tone and the next makes this work a fascinating study of comparative color. Concentric Square recalls the chromatic experiments of Stella’s contemporary Josef Albers, who’s prolific Homage to the Square project constitutes a major exploration of color and its experiential properties.

    Due to its geometric composition, Concentric Square exudes a sensation of self-contained movement, with vibrations pushing out to the edges of the frame, and tunneling back towards the center. By containing this sort of internal dynamism, the work brings new liveliness to the conventional two-dimensional picture plane. Measuring five feet across and five feet tall, the effect is wholly immersive and physically enticing. The spectator’s eye is pulled inwards to the middle and then outwards to the bounds of the work. After sustained viewing, Concentric Square takes on a mesmerizingly illusionistic effect that evokes the work of Op Artists like Bridget Riley, who worked contemporaneously with Stella. By retuning to fundamentals, and rethinking formal relationships, Stella produces something that is altogether new and physically disorientating with Concentric Square.

    Composition is Stella’s chief concern, and Concentric Square demonstrates his penchant for rationality and his commitment to absolute symmetry. In this work, Stella takes Modernism to its logical extreme, presenting painting as an object stripped of exterior referent. He reflected on his practice: "All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion... What you see is what you see" (F. Stella, quoted in B. Glaser, "Questions to Stella and Judd," Art News, September, 1966, p. 6) The entire content of Concentric Square is thus set before the spectator. The work is simply an arrangement of formal characteristics to be absorbed by the viewer. For Stella, it was critical that his work be devoid of distraction. He said, "After all the aim of art is to create space - space that is not compromised by decoration or illustration, space within which the subjects of painting can live." (F. Stella quoted in, S. Everett, Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modern Thought, New York, 1995, p. 246) The aim of an artwork is not to be decorative, but to engineer physical space.

    The present lot is just one of many iterations of this square geometric arrangement. Stella produced an entire Concentric Square series based on the same reductive vocabulary. After studying the output of other artists he considered what his own work might resolve. He reflects: “I had to do something about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry – make it the same all over….The solution I arrived at…forces illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate by using a regulated pattern. The remaining problem was simply to find a method of paint application which followed and complemented the design solution. This was done by using the house painter’s technique and methods.” (F. Stella, Text of a Lecture at the Pratt Institute, Winter 1959 – 1960. Published in R. Rosenbaum, Frank Stella, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books Ltd., 1971, p. 57) By contriving the conditions for absolute symmetry and using industrial painting techniques, Stella championed painting as a resolutely flat object in space, devoid of illusion.

    Stella describes the compulsion he felt to continue the series in the pursuit of a perfect geometric composition: "The concentric square format is about as neutral and as simple as you can get…It's 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. It is a successful picture before you start, and it's pretty hard to blow it." (F. Stella, as quoted in Frank Stella, 1970-1987, New York, 1987, p. 43) Stella relishes in the systematic quality of the series, and the restriction which the rigid structure imposes. The serial quality of Stella's work marked his persistence in perfection and his pursuit of purity in his creation, as is evidenced by his constant utilization of different materials, shapes and even by his fluctuation between flatness and relief. This constant desire to simplify, perfect and pare down his subject to its most basic form is exquisitely portrayed in Concentric Square with its linearity, purity of color and of form.

    In conjunction with the series to which the present lot belongs, the rest of Stella’s oeuvre is marked by his desire to empty, and consequently reimagine the formal characteristics of painting. His monochromatic Black Paintings, which debuted in 1959, provided a chance to focus exclusively on the materiality of paint on a flat surface. Later, Stella developed his Aluminum Paintings (1960), and Copper Paintings (1960–61), which retained the same chromatic simplicity but explored the possibility of irregular canvas formats. With the Protractor series (1967–71) he further pushed the bounds of the canvas, making works defined by curving, concentric circles. In the later stages of his career, Stella ventured into three dimensions, creating twisting, monumental reliefs and sculptures, many of which realized the same achievements he had made in two-dimensional abstraction in three dimensions.

    Stella belongs to a legacy of post-war American artists that reimagined the possibilities for painting. His concern for formal and stylistic matters rather than narrative function bears the influence of the New York School, and one can liken his insistence on reductive forms to the work of Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. The way in which he reduces painterly elements and traces of the human hand predicated and contemporaneously evolved alongside Minimalist pioneers like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Individually, they would take Modernism to its most pure and logical extreme while opening the door to new aesthetic possibilities by paring down their visual language to the barest of essentials. Working with modular forms and mathematical progressions, these artists were able to expand upon art's possibilities in ways that would help to define an era and extend its influence from art to design and from the regional to the transcendent. Stella produced distinct pictorial possibilities, exemplified by Concentric Square, that continue to reverberate and remain prescient today.

  • 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.

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Concentric Square

acrylic on canvas
63 x 63 in. (160 x 160 cm)

$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $3,973,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 13 November 2014 7pm