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  • Overview

    '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.' —Frank StellaA mature example of Frank Stella’s sustained exploration of the square form, Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values radiates outwards with distinct chromatic energy. Rendered on an exceptionally large scale, the composition immerses the viewer in its colourful vortex, with each hue deepening as the square diminishes in size at the painting’s centre. Playing a pivotal role in the development of Stella’s work, the symbol of the square was deployed in many different constructs throughout the artist’s painterly output. ‘The Concentric Squares created a pretty high, pretty tough pictorial standard’, he said, ‘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’.1 In its finished form, the present composition offers an image that is resolutely symmetrical and stable in the artist’s repetition of squares and schematic placement of colours, yet also compelling in its mesmerising — almost hypnotic — arrangement of prismatic gradations. As such, it exists as a brilliant formulation of the artist’s various takes on a single theme. Signifying its importance within Stella’s opus, Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values notably resided in the esteemed collection of Josette and Roger Vanthournout —two visionary Belgian collectors— for over twenty years, until being acquired by the present owner.

     

    Detail of the present work.
    Detail of the present work.

     

    Evolution of Stella’s Work

     

    Like Stella’s earlier Black, Aluminium and Copper paintings, the artist’s target-like, square compositions articulate the relationship between the two-dimensional picture plane and its three- dimensional support. However unlike previous, colourless formulations, these are characterised by a crisp regularity, rigid symmetry and all-over flatness. As elucidated by the art historian William Rubin, ‘In their extreme simplicity, and the absolute evenness of their matte surface, these pictures have a kind of immediacy that was not to be found in the more complex structures, the more elusive and ambiguous light and the more painterly execution—relatively speaking—of the Black, Aluminum and Copper pictures’.2 In its vivid hues progressing outwards, Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values embodies the stylistic transition Stella underwent in the 1960s, moving away from black and into a wider spectre of chromes. Following this breakthrough development in his painterly practice, the artist would be bestowed a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970, making him the youngest artist ever to receive this recognition, at the age of 33.

     

    Frank Stella, Getty Tomb, 1959, black enamel on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. Image: Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence. © Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.
    Frank Stella, Getty Tomb, 1959, black enamel on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. Image: Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource NY/Scala, Florence. © Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.

     

    An Intellectual Rigour

    '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.'
    —Frank Stella
    Coming from an academic background – Stella has been described as ‘extraordinarily intelligent’, ‘precocious’ and ‘exceedingly well schooled’ – the artist was taught and encouraged by the legendary teacher Stephen Greene at Princeton University, before being skyrocketed to fame by his Black Paintings at the end of the 1950s, four of which appeared in a landmark group show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1959.3 As Stella’s chief concern was composition, as well as an absolute commitment to symmetry, the concentric square came swiftly afterwards, constituting for the artist an ideological watershed. ‘The concentric square format is about as neutral and as simple as you can get’, the artist said. ‘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’.4 Used as a leading theme from its inception in 1961, the square was later deployed within shaped canvases and wall-mounted installations, sometimes as an image held inside different geometric structures, namely curving, concentric circles in his Protractor series, 1967–71.

     

    Frank Stella, Tahkt-I-Sulayman Variation II, 1969, acrylic on canvas, Minneapolis Museum of Art. Image: Bridgeman Images. © Frank Stella. ARS, NY and DACS, London 2021.

     

    The Square in Art History

     

    As a distinct subject matter, the square can trace an extensive history of its own – one that Stella has now become an ineradicable protagonist of. Beginning as a measure from which to evaluate the size and scope of phenomenological elements within realist paintings, the symbol of the square became, in the era of modernism, the epitome of simplicity, the ‘zero point of painting’, the essential break between representation and abstraction. Beginning with Kasimir Malevich’s iconic Black Square, in 1915, the shape was subsequently deployed by a number of American modernists, including Josef Albers and his infamous Homage to the Square series, initiated in 1950. An architectural element furthermore makes itself evident in the present work. Playing with diverse senses of depth and tonality, Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values indeed plunges the viewer in an experience of space that resembles that which is spurred by grand, charismatic buildings or architectural spaces. As synthesised by Stella himself, ‘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’.5

     

    Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959, oil on masonite, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / DACS 2021.
    Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959, oil on masonite, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence. © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / DACS 2021.

     

    Stella’s Painterly Method

     

    Employing an exacting methodology whereby each cubic ring is painted in flat, unmixed and saturated colour, Stella creates minute arrangements that seemingly radiate from the centre outwards, and reverberate back again, conjuring a quasi-hallucinogenic experience of space. It appears almost a magical feat that the artist should have composed Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values by applying paint straight from the tube onto the canvas; yet, it is precisely Stella’s painstaking process that distinguishes his output from that of others, and his near- perfect result from a truly sleek, uncompromised image. There is something very matter-of-fact about Stella’s work, which delectably echoes the discipline with which he realises his Concentric Squares. ‘I like to make paintings, and I work at that: it’s my job. I don’t consider myself that different from anybody else. So I live in the real world and while I’m living in it, I’ll be more or less like other people. At some points I’m going to cross common experiences. Some of them are going to stick and become a little bit peculiarly mine... I don’t worry about that. I worry about the paintings... the drive to make art’.

     

    Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IV, 1967, oil on canvas, thirteen panels, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence.
    Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum IV, 1967, oil on canvas, thirteen panels, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

    Form, Colour, and Repetition

     

    The idea of making painting an enterprise of essential means, strongly advocated by the critic Clement Greenberg, was further advanced by Michael Fried, an art historian and Stella’s classmate at Princeton. Fried markedly supported Stella, whose output aligned with Greenberg’s doctrine of modernist painting as progressive art for art’s sake. ‘Frank Stella’s new paintings investigate the viability of shape as such’, Fried wrote in his seminal essay ‘Shape as Form’.7 In Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values, the spectator’s eye is pulled inwards to the centre and then outwards to the bounds of the work. By containing this sort of internal dynamism through the use of form, colour and repetition, the work encapsulates the style that eventually came to hail Stella ‘a god of the sixties art world, exalting tastes for reductive form, daunting scale, and orid artificial color’.8

     

    Cut From The Archives

     

    Frank Stella discussing his work in 1972.

     


    1 Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 48.
    2 William Rubin, Frank Stella: 1970-1987, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, n.p.
    3 Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Big Ideas’, The New Yorker, 9 November 2015, online.
    4 Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 43.
    5 Frank Stella, quoted in Sally Everett, Art Theory and Criticism: An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modern Thought, New York, 1995, p. 246.

    6 Frank Stella, quoted in William Rubin, Frank Stella: 1970-1987, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 8.

    7 Michael Fried, ‘Shape as Form’, Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998, p. 77.

    8 Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Big Ideas’, The New Yorker, 9 November 2015, online. 

    • Provenance

      Lawrence Rubin, Katonah
      Galerie de Baene, Knokke
      Josette and Roger Vanthournout, Belgium (acquired from the above in 1985)
      Sotheby's, New York, 14 November 2006, lot 19
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • 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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Property from an Important Belgian Collector

13

Scramble: Ascending Spectrum / Ascending Green Values

signed and dated ‘F. Stella '77’ on the overlap; signed, titled and dated ‘SCRAMBLE: ASCENDING SPECTRUM / ASCENDING GREEN VALUES F. Stella ‘77’ on the stretcher
acrylic on canvas
175.3 x 175.3 cm (69 x 69 in.)
Painted in 1977.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£2,000,000 - 3,000,000 

Sold for £2,866,000

Contact Specialist

 

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale

+ 44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

 

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe

+ 44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]

 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 15 April 2021