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Property from the Estate of Sondra Gilman

Hagmatana I

Hagmatana I
acrylic and graphite on shaped canvas
120 x 180 in. (304.8 x 457.2 cm.)
Painted in 1967.
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1973
R. McMullen, "America's Impact on the Arts: The Visual Arts," Saturday Review, December 1975, p. 101 (illustrated).
E. Ellis, C. Seebohm and C. S. Sykes, At Home with Art: How Art Lovers Live with and Care for Their Treasures, New York, 1999, pp. 144-145 (illustrated and illustrated on the cover).
Kassel, Galerie Schöne Aussicht, Museum Fridericianum Friedrichsplatz, Orangerie Karlsaue, Documenta IV, June-October 1968.

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Lot Essay

“My painting is based on the fact that what can be seen there is there…what you see is what you see.” Frank Stella, 1964 (F. Stella, quoted in Works and New Graphics, London, 1985, n.p.).

Executed on a monumental scale, Frank Stella’s Hagmatana from the Protractor series unites irregularity and equilibrium through colorful, geometric curves that are both interconnected and singularly distinct. Concerned with rhythm, interval, and repetition, recurring motifs throughout his oeuvre and emblematic of post-painterly abstraction, the present work arises out of initial drawings made on a smaller scale with the aid of a protractor. A series of thirty-one different configurations, each painting is named after cities across Iran, Syria, and Turkey, visited by Stella in 1963 due to his burgeoning interest in Islamic Art. But the series’ careful, colorful curves should not be mistaken for a formal focus alone. The artist himself notes, “I wasn’t like the others in the 1960s. It wasn’t geometry that interested me; that was a means to an end.” Keenly attuned to the making of space rather than simply the shaping of form, Hagmatana is a vibrant and aesthetically powerful example of how Stella came to be known by The New York Times as “the strongest American painter of his generation.” Acquired from Leo Castelli in 1973, Hagmatana I has been in the late Sondra Gilman's collection for almost fifty years, and was the first artwork she ever purchased, becoming a cornerstone in the distinguished collection she continued to amass over the next five decades. Hagmatana I is part of a larger, world-class grouping of painting and sculpture by leading names in the 20th century canon of art history, including Ed Ruscha, Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin and Andy Warhol. (J. Russell, “The Power of Frank Stella,” The New York Times, Feb. 1, 1985).
His travels to Iran, specifically, inform this work, named Hagmatana, which is also the ancient name for the city of Hamadan. Stemming from the Abstract Expressionists’ exploration of holistic composition, Stella moves beyond relational painting and questions how to achieve depth while balancing the various parts that make a whole, both with and against each other. The answer Hagmatana arrives at is reminiscent of the lustrous ceiling tiles in the eponymous Iranian city’s Baba Tahir Mausoleum. By employing a replicating, symmetrical pattern at a constant rate along with color density, Stella forces illusionistic space out of the painting. With a penchant for breaking out of the frame, the artist’s geometric curves are stained directly into the canvas weave, allowing for an architecturally rigid but painterly flow to emerge, a fixed moment of transit. Emphasizing the materiality of the fluorescent, acrylic paint and the canvas’ surface, Stella’s regulated designs and freehand method position the incisive work between precision and play.
The curvilinear compositions throughout the Protractor series, but particularly in Hagmatana, which are demarcated by one outer strip that travels over a constellation of intersecting curves beneath, harken to Swiss-German artist Paul Klee’s experimentalism with color theory and pre-Olympian mythology. Klee’s Castle and Sun of 1928 similarly utilizes fragmentation, repetition, and color density to create chaos within structure, irregular geometric forms fixed yet somehow floating unrooted across the colorful canvas. A surprising tenor of antiquity surfaces in both Stella and Klee’s work—the diagrammatic geometry and the contrast between the light colors within the triangles and the maroon-red background, both respectively reinforcing an archaic sensibility.
Barnett Newman also shares a similar tendency towards antiquity, his dramatic work Jericho (1968) aptly titled in reference to the Biblical fall of the city of Jericho. Through the use of saturated, primary colors, Newman delivers the theatricality of a precipitous moment, but it is in his questioning of the shape and format of the canvas that Stella meets him. Engaging in a pictorial thought process conditioned by illusionism, Hagmanata steers clear of “falling into the trap of perspective.”
A prefiguring pioneer among his post-war generation compatriots such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Richard Meier, Stella infuses an architectural imagination into Hagmatana, a recurring preoccupation throughout his oeuvre. The vertical and horizontal elements interrupt the painting’s dominant circular motifs to establish right-angle borders to the overall shape. Acknowledging Piet Mondrian’s geometric composite lines and László Moholy-Nagy’s colorful introspections of light and color, the artist is at his most innovative here, expanding on his use of broad color planes to follow along the contours of the protractor and propose his invisible design of a great tunnel vault. The monumental scale works to disorient, each thrust and counterthrust responding to the sharp, black intersections in order to envelop the viewer into a vertiginous trip.
Situated at the heart of crucial and groundbreaking moments within the history of American painting—a testament to his relentless curiosity, innovative spirit, and disdain for a formulaic working method—Frank Stella staunchly refuses to become dated. When he began his Protractor series in 1967, the art world was a different place, the twentieth century ushering in Pop Art, Minimalism, and Arte Povera, to name a few. Hagmatana is certainly borne out of its specific time, reflected in the Protractor series’ geometric symmetry and linear complexity. And yet, the work retains a particular timelessness. Perhaps Stella himself puts it best, in characteristically pithy fashion: “Well, in the end it’s all the same. You have to make it look all right.” (F. Stella, quoted in an interview with Andrianna Campbell, Frank Stella, New York, p. 16).

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