In 1963, Frank Stella executed a series of abstract portraits that paid homage to some of his closest supporters. In his instantly recognizable style of radically austere painting that had just recently catapulted him to artistic fame, Stella assigned each figure a geometrical shape, which he translated onto large-scale shaped canvases limned with metallic paint. Central among the eight figures that Stella memorialized was Carl Andre, who had forged an extremely close friendship and artistic bond with Stella since they met in 1958.
Stella and Andre's formative years of artistic exploration and breakthrough were crucially intertwined. They had both graduated from Andover Academy one year apart, although they did not meet until they were both young artists working in New York, and their mutual friend Hollis Frampton introduced them. Before long, Stella invited Andre to share his studio space on West Broadway. There, Stella worked on his black paintings in this studio, and when he wasn't using the space, Andre alternated between painting and sculpting until Stella urged him to concentrate on sculpture, spurring Andre to make what he considered his "first mature works." While Andre was at work on carving the front side of Last Ladder, an inversion of Brancusi's Endless Column, Stella pointed to the back that had not yet been cut and said, "That's sculpture, too"-- a remark that Andre praised as "prophetic" for his work (Andre, quoted in CUTS, Texts 1959-2004, p. 268). As Andre described, "The impact of Stella and his work on me was slow and inexorable and powerful as a glacier" (Andre, quoted in Ibid, p. 271). It was Stella's rigor that enthralled Andre, and watching Stella construct his black paintings using austere increments of black bands of paint encouraged Andre to develop his method of building with identical elements that would lead to his renown as a minimalist master.
Andre and Stella were, in fact, so intimately related in terms of their nascent artistic identities that it was Andre who wrote the artist's statement for Stella that was published in the catalogue for the 1959-1960 exhibitions "Sixteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and "Three Young Americans" at Oberlin. Writing for Stella, Andre declared, "Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting."
While Stella's paintings were indeed concerned with the purity of abstract visual experience, the titles of his works were often extremely resonant, frequently alluding to specific places ("Arundel Castle"), historical figures ("Avicenna"), or grand themes ("The Marriage of Reason and Squalor"). For the abstract portrait series, Stella conceived of the names and the forms for each work in concert, as evidenced by his preliminary sketches. Each polygonal shape carries a unique expressive force that stresses the individuality of the subject, and represents them through a sort of radically modern heraldry. Stella included in his sketch a work named after himself - in the shape of a star - which he did not execute. For Hollis Frampton, Stella chose a solid square, while his gallery representatives Illeana Sonnabend and Leo Castelli were represented by a trapezoid and triangle respectively, which could be fit together to form a pyramid. Even in its geometric variety, the series shares a cohesive formal language derived from Stella's choice of a single metallic pigment and his methodical application of painted bands that echo the frame of the canvas until they reach a central void that also repeats the shape of the frame. Unifying the series, the shimmering quality of the silvery paint emphasizes the tension between the painted strips of color and the exposed strips of blank canvas, enhancing the visual reverberation of the geometric form (an effect Stella had previously explored in his series of aluminum paintings). Together, the portraits capture a specific moment in Stella's life; as the artist stressed, "I wanted them to be portraits of the people with whom I was involved with at that time" (Frank Stella Working Drawings Zeichnungen 1956-1970, p. 60).
Robert Rosenblum eloquently conveys how these works by Stella claim new possibilities for painting, "If anything, these Dada portraits were more closely united with the picture's frame than with its contents, for now the very core of the picture was hollow, a possibility already hinted at in two of the 1960 aluminum canvases. Here the central void had been so enlarged that the usual relationship between the picture and the frame was totally reversed. The enclosed area, traditionally reserved for the 'picture,' had simply disappeared; the bones and the flesh of painting were united. If we were to look at anything at all, it would have to be the tangible structure that isolated this void, a void that became all the more conspicuous because of the emphasis given to its frame, a polygon that was reiterated concentrically as many as nine times." (R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, 1971, p. 25-6). By leaving the center of the work of art empty, Stella dramatically transforms the ambitions of painting-- particularly in regard to portraiture, which traditionally focuses on the appearance or inner life of a subject.