Frank Stella's Telluride is one of the artist's iconic Copper Paintings, produced as a response to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Painted in 1962, it is one of only six small versions of a series of large-scale works that Stella produced for a show at Leo Castelli's Gallery in New York that same year. Acquired directly from Leo Castelli by the legendary post-war art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine, the burnished surface of Telluride is a glowing celebration of the strict geometrics with which Stella sought to banish the wild gestural brushstrokes that had been the mainstay of much of the artistic production of the previous decade.
Building on his earlier series of Black and Aluminum Paintings in which Stella disrupted the planar surface by removing notches from the perimeter of the canvas, with Telluride (named after a mountain town in Colorado) the artist took this radical idea a step further by subtracting even more of the rectangular field, becoming one of the first works where the resulting silhouette is of equal importance as the accompanying surface pattern. The elegant symmetry of the works in this series is achieved by placing a sequence of L-shaped right angles in a variety of combinations--in Telluride they are placed back to back--to produce the first paintings in Stella's oeuvre that breaks centuries of artistic tradition that enclosed pictorial illusion within the confines of a rectangular enclosed space.
By removing substantial parts of the rectangular field, Stella provocatively questions traditional conventions of art unlike any other artist of his generation. He admitted that his intention with Telluride was to push the boundaries of artistic practice, "The Copper pictures were a big jump," Stella recalls, "and I was aware that they raised questions about relief and sculpture. But I knew where I stood, and wasn't afraid of the problem....Although these are the most radically shaped of the canvases they are also the most rectilinear in a way. In other words, they emphasize the right angle, and what those right angle turns do. But they represent the extreme-- the limit--to which I could take the shaping. Even though so much is cut away--and in some cases, so arbitrarily--what saves them I think, is the fact that they keep echoing a kind of rectangularity. If they started getting off into different kinds of obtuse and acute angles, they would be lost as painting" (F. Stella quoted in W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 68).
Unlike the wildly expressive and gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism, Stella's method of composition was methodical and deliberate. The tight geometric shape of Telluride was the result of careful and precise preparation. Using graph paper, Stella would first draw the strict outlines of the shape with a sharp pencil. He would then mark up initial internal lines and spaces using a soft pencil. The precise width and configuration of the internal lines was the only pre-determined element, their dimensions being the width of the commercial masking tape Stella used to mark up the canvas together with the width of the brush he used to construct the rich pattern of parallel lines that characterize his work. This combination of the two and one-half inch stripe of the brushstroke plus the quarter-inch width of the masking tape resulted in the mesmerizing internal structure of his works.
Stella enhances this strict formality with his choice of copper paint. In his book Chromophobia, David Batchelor deciphers Stella's use of copper paint and the rich aesthetic properties it offered him. "A shiny surface gives depth to the flatness at the same time as it emphasizes the flatness" he says, "But it is a kind of depth which is entirely the opposite of atmospheric depth of traditional easel painting. This is an inexpressive, mechanical depth. It is not a psychological or emotional, at least not in the traditional sense, not deep and not heavy" (D. Batchelor, quoted by B. Tufnell, Frank Stella: Connections, exh. cat., Haunch of Venison, London, 2011, p. 69).
Thus this canvas becomes an important example of work in which Stella perfects his denial of the illusion of depth or space. By refusing to adopt the 'old values' of traditional art and asserting the flatness and objectivity of the canvas he was not rejecting completely the energetic brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, as is often suggested, but insisting on the development of the overall surface without relying on the illusionism that comes from the visual brushstrokes or the sense of depth that the inclusion of color might imply. Telluride takes its place as an important contributor to this dialogue and, just as Pop was emerging, was already laying the foundations for the development of Minimalism which pushed the boundaries of art to new heights.
Therefore, with works such as Telluride Stella sought to redefine the act of painting for the modern age. "I always get into arguments," he once said, "with people who want to retain the "old values" in painting--the 'humanistic' values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. 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 W.S. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, pp. 41-42).