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Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
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Frank Stella (b. 1936)

Benjamin Moore Paintings [6 Works]

Details
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Benjamin Moore Paintings [6 Works]
Hampton Roads
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

Sabine Pass
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

New Madrid
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

Palmito Ranch
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

Delaware Crossing
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.

Island No. 10
alkyd on canvas
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm.)
Painted in 1961.
Provenance
Galerie Lawrence, Paris
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1965
Edwin Janss, Thousand Oaks, California
James Corcoran Gallery, Santa Monica
Private collection, 1988
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
L. Rubin, Frank Stella Paintings 1958-1965, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1986, pp. 142-147, nos. 123, 127, 138, 140, 149 and 154 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Paris, Galerie Lawrence, F. Stella, November 1961.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Masterworks from Degas to Rosenquist, February-April 2012 (illustrated on the cover).
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Lot Essay

“These [Benjamin Moore Paintings] occupy a special position in Stella's development in that they contain the root vocabulary of all that had gone before.” Willlam Rubin (W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 73).

Painted in 1961, Frank Stella’s Benjamin Moore Paintings (New Madrid, Sabine Pass, Palmito Ranch, Hampton Roads, Island No. 10, Delaware Crossing) are widely regarded as the apotheosis of the artist’s career. They were the logical progression from his Black Paintings which revolutionized the art world in the late 1950s, and the natural extension of his shaped Aluminum Paintings from 1960. With the Benjamin Moore Paintings, Stella combined his interests in the materiality of paint and the rigor of the canvas into one distinct body of work. He originally painted a series of large-scale Benjamin Moore canvases in 1961. Each depicted a distinct pattern and was rendered in one of six colors: green, yellow, purple, blue, orange and red. He then executed thirty-six corresponding smaller canvases in a 12-inch square format, with no pattern/color combination repeating itself. In 1962, after completing the set of thirty-six, he added one more set of six: a gift to Andy Warhol, which was ultimately donated to the Brooklyn Museum, where it currently resides. The present work is an opportunity to acquire a complete set of the six distinct patterns, each one a representation of the primary and secondary colors that Stella used in the series.

Benjamin Moore Paintings are comprised of six individually painted canvas, each independently titled: New Madrid, Sabine Pass, Palmito Ranch, Hampton Roads, Island No. 10, Delaware Crossing; each is painted with a series of geometric stripes, often conjoined at right angles. The different canvases are painted using commercial Benjamin Moore alkyd house paint, in each of the primary and secondary colors. Stella did not alter or interfere with the consistency or appearance of the paint, proclaiming instead that he wanted "to keep the paint as good as if it was in the can" (F. Stella, quoted by W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 73). 

According to William Rubin, former director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the configuration of the concentric bands in Stella’s Benjamin Moore Paintings had their origins in the artist’s earlier Black Paintings. For example, Island No. 10 has strong parallels in the rectangular field of Tomlinson Court Park. Similarly, a  comparable process of simplification can be seen in the way in which the pattern of Delaware Crossing mirrors the design of Die Fahne Hoch! Yet, Rubin notes, not all of the later canvases refer back to earlier works. The diagonals of Sabine Pass have traces of the diamond-patterned Black Paintings, but more importantly point in a new direction that Stella was soon to explore. And the maze design of New Madrid, a configuration totally without precedent in Stella's earlier work, was soon to be used—with all its corners mitered— as a vehicle for his first multicolored paintings. 

In addition to the geometric forms, Stella’s primary vehicle for expression in this series was color: he selected his choices carefully, and deployed them methodically. Choosing commercially available Alkyd paint was not only a nod to his own history with the product (his father began his working life as a housepainter, as did Stella Jr.), but he was also attracted to the extreme simplicity and the absolute evenness of their matte surfaces . Unlike the dramatic gestures of his Abstract Expressionist forebears, these paintings have an immediacy that was not to be found in the earlier, more complex structures. "Those six simple designs, painted in Benjamin Moore flat wall paint, were really all the things the earlier pictures weren't," Stella observes. "They were very symmetrical, very flat and very all-over. [They]… were certainly the clearest statement to me, or to anyone else, as to what my pictures were about— what kind of goal they had” (F. Stella, quoted by W. Rubin, ibid. p. 73). 

Thus, Frank Stella’s Benjamin Moore Paintings have come to be seen as marking a pivotal point in the history of postwar abstract painting. In addition to being the logical conclusion of what the artist wanted to achieve with his Black and Aluminum Paintings, their flatness and use of preexisting industrial and commercial materials, acted as a precursor to both Pop Art and Minimalism. Writing in his biography of Warhol, critic Blake Gopnik noted the impact that Stella’s Benjamin Moore Paintings had on Warhol’s burgeoning career. “The series combined the high-culture aspirations with a low-culture reference to apartment walls and paint stores… Stella’s series had elements of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and Pop Art before any of those movements had been properly launched… Warhol was so impressed with what he saw that he paid Stella to make him miniature versions of the entire six-painting suite” (B. Gopnik, Warhol, New York, 2020, pp. 202-203). 

Stella began the Black Paintings shortly after finishing up his coursework at Princeton and moving to New York. He moved into a loft on Eldridge Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and to support himself, he worked as a housepainter three or four days a week. During this formative period, he began to tire of the influence that Abstract Expressionism still held over the art world, especially in the newspapers and magazines that he read at the time: “it began to be kind of obvious and...terrible, and you began to see through it," Stella recalled. “I began to feel very strongly about finding a way that wasn’t so wrapped up in the hullabaloo, or a way of working that you couldn’t write about...something that was stable in a sense, something that wasn’t constantly a record of your sensitivity” (F. Stella, Frank Stella, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 13). In early 1958, Stella had also encountered the work of Jasper Johns for the first time, and he was struck by Johns’s use of inherently flat pictorial design, which he repeated with a “rhythm and interval” that gave Stella the courage to try some of the same concepts in his own paintings.

By the late 1950s this new generation of artists was beginning to question the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, and Frank Stella became a leading proponent of a highly rational version of abstraction formed in response to the gestural, emotional quality of artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. Stella worked from within the modernist tradition and, as can be seen in these paintings, began to divest the gesture from meaning. With his iconic Black Paintings and works such as the present example, he dismantled illusionism by stripping away any kind of subject matter, be it allegorical or anecdotal, that has been suggested via the painted surface of the canvas. With these paintings, Stella proposes that there is no need to search for meaning beyond the visual experience of the surface.  “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. 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 by radio broadcast, 1964, in G. Battock, p.158).

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