Frank Stella’s monumental Lettre sur les sourds et muets I belongs to the artist’s celebrated Diderot series, a group of paintings which built on his iconic Concentric Square format that the artist initiated in 1962. Taking a brief hiatus from these ground-breaking geometric compositions in the late ‘60s, the following decade Stella would return to them triumphantly with works such as the present example, increasing their scale and the complexity of coloration. Here, Stella alternates between bands of gray, lightening as they approach the center and a rich chromatic scale, which transitions from reds, to yellow, to greens and finally dark blue. The painting’s simultaneous formal cohesion and discordant color combinations create a precisely wrought tension within the painting, an effect Stella often strives for in his pictures. Representative of the artist’s famous liking for measured logic, Lettre sur les sourds et muets I epitomizes the artist’s ‘70s output and the very best of his Concentric Square paintings more broadly.
Bordered with black similar to the ones found on Stella’s foundational Black Paintings, the present canvas simultaneously recalls the artist’s earlier work while presaging future developments. Before the Concentric Square series, Stella’s pictures were purely monochromatic, in congruence with the Minimalists with whom he was sometimes grouped. Ushering in a new era in his work, Stella arrived at color with the first Concentric Square paintings, never to make a monochrome painting again. Nevertheless, the concentric shapes and meticulously ordered compositions would remain until the ‘80s, when Stella’s work shifted into a much more lyrical mode of abstraction. The present painting possesses a much more daring color program than those earlier paintings while retaining their essential structure and compositional framework.
Indeed, Lettre sur les sourds et muets I boasts a highly complex color palette while also remaining highly legible and, as with all of Stella’s work, adamant in its visual logic. Black and deep burgundy red constitute the two outer rings, giving way to oranges and dark grays followed by bright yellows and light grays and finally a progression of aquatic green, blue and white bands. A black square lies at the center, unifying the outermost band with the innermost point and creating a push-pull effect between the grayscale bands and the colored ones. The two scales jostle for visual primacy while bouncing off one another like two dancers in lockstep. Having already executed Concentric Squares in all grayscale and all chromatic scale, the Diderot paintings represent a joining of these two motifs for Stella and a culmination of an iconic series.
Discussing this series in the context of his ‘70s output more generally, Stella says, “The effect of doing [the Diderot paintings] ‘by the numbers,’ so to say, gave me a kind of guide in my work as a whole… The Concentric Squares created a pretty high, pretty tough pictorial standard. 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” (F. Stella, quoted in W. Rubin and F. Stella (eds.), Frank Stella, 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1988. p. 48). Stella, evidently, viewed the series as an anchor for his more experimental ‘70s paintings, like the Polish Village works. The consistency of the Diderot pictures gave Stella the opportunity to once again explore color within a consistent and effective compositional framework.
The Diderot series takes its name from the 18th century French Enlightenment philosopher, writer, art critic and encyclopedia contributor Denis Diderot. The painting’s title, borrowed from a 1751 essay by the French thinker, translates to “Letter on the Deaf and Dumb”. Using non-verbal communicative methods, Diderot drew conclusions about the theretofore misunderstood formation of language and its impact on consciousness and human thought. That essay, and his 1749 “Letter on the Blind,” arrive at the broad concept of Relativism, which posits that a person’s unique disposition is not based on any unifying or universal truth but on his or her individual set of variable perceptions and analyses. Equally significant for presenting the first modern theory of variability, the papers distinguish people by their distinct personalities and character traits, paving the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution a century later. Appealing to Stella in part due to the sheer volume and breadth of his interests and work, Diderot’s wide-ranging contributions furthered the discourse of the Enlightenment and altered the course of Western thought as a result. A student of philosophy in college and after, Stella’s work, with its firm adherence to self-imposed rules, behaves like philosophical treatises grounded in consistency and reliant on internal and universal logic.
With this knowledge, the reasoning behind the painting’s striking duality becomes clearer. Instead of parsing the grays and the colors into individual squares on the same canvas like earlier Concentric Square paintings, Stella combines them, resulting in a dizzying clash between the two essential components of color, hue and value. Stella’s intentionally challenging composition forces the viewer to make dozens of visual decisions and confront discrepancies between raw sight and visual processing. In effect, the painting, like its namesake, questions the notion that visual perception is absolute and consistent from person to person. Still, the present work feels solid and immovable due both to its size and its iron-clad composition. “[Stella’s] paintings are both objective…and truculently subjective,” wrote Donald Judd in his review for an earlier series of paintings (D. Judd, “In the Galleries: Frank Stella,” Arts Magazine, Sept. 1962). Judd, despite writing about a different series, recognized one of the consistent engines of Stella’s painting: its ability to be both concrete and resolute and deeply affecting.
Beginning in the mid-late ‘70s, Stella would begin working more frequently in three dimensions, inaugurating the style he would largely adhere to in the following decades and into the present. As such, the Diderot paintings, and Lettre sur les sourds et muets I specifically, constitute a watershed moment for Stella. Testing the limits of size and color, Stella’s Diderot paintings, and the present example specifically, find the artist pushing at the outer boundaries of his own established painterly style. Hailing from one of Stella’s most fruitful artistic moments, Lettre sur les sourds et muets I anticipates the artist’s move to three dimensions with its throbbing, tunnel-like composition that at-once affirms its status as a flat painting and attempts to transcend that fact through deft optical maneuvering. The present work should be viewed as a highpoint of Stella’s ‘70s work, representing a breaking point in which he had taken specific aspects of his practice—color, flatness and compositional consistency—to their logical extremes. A pivotal series, the Diderot paintings represent a moment of transition that would not only come to epitomize Stella’s practice, but the broader transition from the cool austerity of the ‘70s to the freewheeling ‘80s.
As one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century and continuing to the present, Stella’s work has often predicted or initiated broad shifts in art since his emergence in the 1950s. A harbinger of minimalist painting and an inestimable influence on hard-edge abstraction, Stella’s ‘60s and ‘70s painting have come to define that period with their hulking proportions and confident, sharp execution. The present painting finds Stella at his most confident, finding the end-point of an expansive series of work with clarity and drama. Sprawling in size but tightly measured in execution, Lettre sur les sourds et muets I exemplifies, with great fervor, a high point in one of the great careers in American abstraction.