A driving force in mid-20th century American painting, and an outspoken advocate for abstraction and formal precision, Frank Stella is one of the most recognizable artists to emerge from the thriving hotbed of American abstraction. Gray Scramble (1968), painted just two years before the artist’s major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a bold example of Stella’s massive canvases that bridge the gap between the monumentality of Abstract Expressionism and the exactitude of Minimalism. Taking their name from a 1967 piece of choreography by Merce Cunningham for which Stella designed both sets and costumes, the Scramble series returned to the rectilinear format of the artist’s earlier works after a period of experimental shaped canvases typified by the Protractor and Irregular Polygon series of the 1960s. Drawing upon the optically rich color palettes of that body of work, but combined with the rectangular composition of Stella’s Black Paintings, pieces like Gray Scramble signal a culmination of ideals that the artist was working toward throughout his early career.
Composed of two sets of concentric squares set next to each on a single horizontal canvas, Gray Scramble approaches color in an orderly, almost mathematical manner. The left squares run the spectrum from deep purple to white starting at the center while the right square gets darker as you approach its outer border. Not arranged in the order of a rainbow, and alternating with lines of gray, these color sets push and pull at the viewer’s eye while also making chromatic reference to the progression of grayscale and Stella’s earlier Black Paintings. Existing as striking opposites in their chromatic information, the two squares are composed on the artist’s trademark three-inch stretcher which mimics the thickness of each painted band. Stella, not wanting to revert to a more monochromatic phase, endeavored to apply more hues to his rigorous painting practice, saying, “The reason I used color that way at first, was to fit the new work into the whole thinking of the striped pictures in general. I wanted to use a fairly formalized, programmatic kind of color” (F. Stella, quoted in W. Rubin, Frank Stella, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, p. 76). By introducing colored paint into his already firmly established formal structures, Stella could harness the more energetic aspects of this new turn.
Stella, during much of his career, has been adamant about the direct and precise nature of his work. With a distinct relationship set up between the depicted forms and the actual support of the canvas and stretcher, the artist’s works continuously pushed toward a seeming two-dimensionality. Stella noted, “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” (ibid.). This preference for visual impact and flatness caught the eye of the outspoken New York critic Clement Greenberg who was looking beyond Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s toward a new evolution in Modern art that he termed Post-Painterly Abstraction. Hard-Edge painters like Stella and his contemporary Ellsworth Kelly intrigued Greenberg and fit into his dogmas about the pure formal qualities of abstract painting. While Stella fit into the critic’s ideals for how painting should progress as the 20th century marched on, pieces like Gray Scramble are essential to an understanding of the divide in American art as they also caught the eye of avant-garde artists working to go beyond Greenberg’s formalist quest for purity.
Always interested in creating rules for himself to follow, Stella serves as a crucial link between the fluid, gestural work of the Abstract Expressionists and later movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism that took preparation and the motivating idea as an equally important part of the work as the final product. The Scramble series to which Gray Scramble belongs signified the apex of Stella’s earlier Concentric Squares painting mode. Pushing into the 1970s, the artist used his earlier formal standards to both visually link his oeuvre and support the new works. “The Concentric Squares created a pretty high, pretty tough pictorial standard,” Stella noted later, “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, in Frank Stella 1970-1987, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1987, p. 44). Thinking about the Concentric Squares as a baseline for experimentation, Stella kept himself grounded by going back to their rigorous structure. A painting like Gray Scramble, with its double squares rendered in inverse spectrums, hints at the more lavish compositions to come later as Stella’s career advanced. However, it still retains a clear formula that allows the audience to relate these later works to his more stayed output.
Stella was clear about the content of his artwork, and continually refined his process to more accurately highlight the qualities of painting. Pieces like Gray Scramble divorce themselves from their objectness, and instead focus the viewer’s attention on the painting as a whole. This transcendence beyond raw materials was admired by artists and critics alike. The Minimalist artist Carl Andre explained the visual and conceptual attraction, saying, “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting. Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting. Symbols are counters passed among people. Frank Stella’s painting is not symbolic. His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting” (C. Andre, in Sixteen Americans, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1959). By continually foregrounding the fact that his works like Gray Scramble are not illusion or illustration, but simply paint on canvas, Stella was able to more accurately and precisely cut to the heart of what abstract painting is about.