Frank Stella’s Cipango (Small Version) is a rich and conceptually rigorous example of one of the artist’s most iconic forms. Regarded as a leading figure of Minimalism, Stella is renowned for eradicating the subjective emotion found in the works of the Abstract Expressionists that he had grown up studying. Instead, he emphasizes the clear logic of a painting as object. Influenced by the methodical repetition of Jasper Johns’s Target and Flag paintings, Stella demonstrated this apparently dispassionate approach in the Black Paintings, which he began in 1958 after moving to New York. By using commercial alkyd house paint on such an elemental shape, Stella (who had worked as a house painter during his first year in New York) was able to create the flat, emotionless composition that he was seeking. The series that Stella would embark upon the following year, Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes, would combine these colors, creating dynamic works that continue to affirm Stella’s insistence on the sanctity of the painting as object.
Painted in 1962, Cipango (Small Version) consists of a sequence of concentric bands demarcated by areas of blank canvas. From the initially overwhelming imagery a discernable pattern emerges: beginning in the center, a warm gray square is followed by consecutive lines of blue, green, yellow, orange, and deep magenta. This line functions as a transition point, for the initial series of colors now reverses: orange, yellow, green, blue, and gray. Aided by the way in which the accumulation of the bands’ corners divide the canvas into four triangular sections, the effect of this sequential pattern is one of pulsation, of movement in and out. The eye is drawn into the composition, as though the viewer is being enticed into a rainbow-colored vortex.
The impassive nature of Cipango (Small Version) is achieved, in part, by the way the work seemingly dispenses with brushstrokes. This, compounded with Stella’s use of commercial alkyd paint, creates a flat, static composition. Yet, while Stella rids the work of any representational quality, his mastery of the media and its possibilities are made clear up close looking at the canvas: the painted lines are slightly undulating and at times the colors—of what initially appeared to be crisply contained bands of pigment—flicker into the bare sections of canvas, creating a vibrant, thrumming sensation. That the work could be a dispassionate study of the hues of the artist’s color wheel only heightens its two-fold nature.
While Stella’s works are often described as free from referential detail, the artist has stressed the fallacy of this view: “Abstraction has never been pure. That is something that painters know, but others have a hard time understanding. An abstract painting actually refers to a lot more things than a figurative painting, which is very specific. Abstract painting is very open, it’s specifically open, which means you can attach a lot more ideas to it.” (F. Stella, quoted in M. Auping, “THE UN-SECRET WORLD OF FRANK STELLA,” in VoCA Journal, November 12, 2015, http://journal.voca.network/the-un-secretworld-of-frank-stella/). Stella frequently provided clues to his paintings’ possible allusions through their titles, and Cipango (Small Version) is evidently one of thoseinstances. For example, in contrast to his Black Paintings, the titles of which often indicated suffering and despair, the word “Cipango” is as exuberant as the composition’s formal qualities. The word first appeared in The Travels of Marco Polo as the narrator’s reference to Japan, which Polo describes as an exotic land of dazzling splendor.
Both the caliber of Cipango (Small Version) and its significant place in the history of modern art is attested to by its early provenance. Its first owner was Hollis Frampton, the photographer and filmmaker who met Stella when they both attended school together in the early 1950s. In 1958, they and their fellow classmate, the sculptor Carl Andre, reunited in New York. During this seminal period, Stella met art dealer and champion of young avant-garde artists, Leo Castelli. Stella saw Jasper John’s Target and Flag paintings at Castelli’s Manhattan gallery in 1958, and in 1959, after Stella had begun his Black Paintings, Castelli visited the artist’s studio. Stella subsequently chose to be represented by the gallery, and his first solo show was held there the following year. Considering Castelli’s impact in the art world, it is noteworthy that, as the painting’s owners after Frampton, the Castelli family chose Cipango (Small Version) for their personal collection. In its adherence to Stella’s tenet of painting as object, Cipango (Small Version) heralds, with joyful exuberance, a new chapter in the history of modern art.