"My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved enough in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he's doing. He is making a thing... 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).
In January 1958, while still a student at Princeton, Stella visited Jasper Johns' one-man exhibition in New York. At this exhibition, ideas of rhythm, interval, repetition and objectivity came into focus for the young artist and Stella would go on to produce his seminal Black Paintings between 1958 and 1960. Reacting against the dominant Abstract Expressionist tendencies of the time, he focused exclusively on the control he found in symmetrical and linear compositions and the materiality of the canvas. This reductive approach to painting aligned him with the beginnings of the minimalist movement. In 1959 Leo Castelli became his representative and four of his paintings from the period were included in the pivotal Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959-1960; Stella's presence in the New York art scene was thus established.
Stella's use of color emerged in the 1960's with the Benjamin Moore Series, for which he chose six Benjamin Moore paint colors (the primaries: red, yellow and blue, and the secondaries: orange, green and purple). He did not mix these colors, but rather used them in their pure form, straight from the can. Moving away from the more loosely painted Black Paintings of the late 1950s, this injection of color was accompanied by an enhanced precision in execution introducing heightened focus on depth and illusion. Painted in 1961, or Picabia is an excellent example of Stella's most classic formal and reductive paintings from this period.
Executed in bold primary colors, For Picabia undeniably pushes the boundaries of its two dimensional rectangular canvas. The geometric pattern is painted in meticulous and perfectly placed concentric squares of color resulting in a pulsating optical illusion within the constraints of its formulaic and rigid composition. Separated by perfectly outlined thin bands of raw canvas, the adjacent squares of saturated blue and red recede inwards one moment and protrude the next, competing for attention. Intermittently, intersecting diagonal lines appear which are not even there, constantly challenging perception at the same time establishing the painting's objecthood.
Throughout his oeuvre, Stella plays with titles and art historical references. As a young artist searching for his own voice and style, Stella naturally was influenced by his contemporaries and found the urge to push the boundaries of the established and successful who came before him. Works from the 60's reference Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell amongst others. The title of the present work For Picabia perhaps references Stella's "preoccupation with wiping out Cubism, who's vestigial illusions of luminous, layered spaces he hoped to replace with another, fresher kind of spatial construction" (Robert Rosenblum quoted in L. Rubin, Frank Stella Paintings 1958 to 1965: A Catalogue Raisonne, New York, 1986, p. 11).
In For Picabia, the contrast between the precise geometric pattern and the optical vibration caused by its composition strikes a visually appealing balance resulting in a fresh and impactful composition demonstrative of Stella's successful and innovative perspective on art at the time.
"The overriding effect of Stella's work continues to affirm his unswerving faith in the absolute autonomy of art and in abstraction as the only viable language." (Robert Rosenblum quoted in L. Rubin, Frank Stella Paintings 1958 to 1965: A Catalogue Raisonn©e, New York, 1986, p. 23)
Frank Stella, 1970. (c) Malcolm Lubliner/CORBIS
Frank Stella, photographed for a 1965 Vogue article. Photograph by Hollis Frampton