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Details
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Pratfall
acrylic on canvas
129½ x 129½ in. (328.9 x 328.9 cm.)
Painted in 1974.
Provenance
M. Knoedeler & Co. Inc., New York
The Gund Art Foundation, New York
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 7 May 1996, lot 43
Private collection, Columbus
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 13 May 2003, lot 34
Private collection, London
Anon. sale, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2006, lot 72
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Exhibited
Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, A Private Vision: Contemporary Art from the Graham Gund Collection, February-April 1982, p. 44 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

"[The concentric square] is a powerful pictorial image. It's so good that you can use it, abuse it, and even work against it to the point of ignoring it. It has a strength that's almost indestructible-at least for me. It's one of those givens, and it's very hard for me not to paint it." (F. Stella, as quoted in Frank Stella, 1970-1987, New York, 1987, p. 43)

Like the almost indistinguishable lines that exist between the bands of color in one of his Concentric Square compositions, Frank Stella's geometric abstract style exists in the interstitial space between the expressive and the conceptual. As part of the tail end of the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements, Stella's early work was defined by a methodical style and a penchant for rationality in his compositions. In his 1974 composition Pratfall, meaning an unceremonious fall backward, Stella in many respects is reexamining his earlier orderly style in this visual trope of seemingly endlessly imbedded squares of gray, black and white. The absence of color focuses the eye on the clever composition, in which some of the bands get progressively darker as they move towards the painting's edge, while others get lighter. The eye vacillates from being pulled in and pushed out, effectively leading the viewer's eye over the entire surface of the painting and creating the sensation of movement. Pratfall can be seen as a return to Stella's more contemplative beginnings as he began to explore the ranges and the depths of one single tone. While most of the members of the concentric square series are more brightly hued and greatly expound on the different possible color combinations, Pratfall delves into the rich realms of the gray scale. The serial quality of Stella's work marked his persistence in perfection and his pursuit of purity in his creation, as is evident by his constant utilization of different materials, shapes and even by his fluctuation between flatness and relief. This constant desire to simplify, perfect and pare down his subject to its most basic form is exquisitely portrayed in Pratfall with its tides of gray and black tones that quietly resonate off of one another.

Stella's entire oeuvre can be understood through these desires to simplify, reduce and then re-expand from this most fundamental reality. While his early works from the late 1950s sought to conjure the atmospheric effects of Mark Rothko, they also possess an interest in geometric equivalences of Piet Mondrian. As he graduates to his iconic Black Paintings series, the reduced color palette allows Stella to focus on the liminal place between swatches of black, as well as focus on the sheer materiality of his paint on the canvas. His exploration led him in 1962 to first delve into the subject of the concentric square, exploring the use of color and grayscale alike, as he fully engrossed himself into this subject.

Although Stella moved away from the stark geometric nature distinctive of his early works in order to focus on more complex spatial construction with new mediums and processes in his Polish Village and Brazilian series, Stella returns to the contemplative subject of the square in 1974, when he constructed Pratfall. The composition's defining quality is its palette--it is one of only two black, white and gray examples of the series. By contrasting a gray to another gray or black, instead of next to a bright color, the viewer begins to pick up subtleties in the color that may at first go unnoticed. Just as Stella's concentric squares act as an origin to which to return, so, too, do the gray subtleties offer a refreshing step away from the high color values in many of his other works preceding and following Pratfall's execution. This much needed contemplation, more peaceful and tranquil, offers a more meditative side of Stella's style, which is reminiscent of his earlier work. Color, Stella maintained, was not his primary interest; rather, his painting technique signals the importance of the paint as a secondary element, resulting in giving the surface an overall coating rather than providing form or structure within the painting. The color gives the varying planes character and allows the composition to work together as a whole, but the structure beneath the canvas, the support and the paint are heart of the composition.

Unflinchingly hard-edged and eschewing expressive gesture, the concentric squares repudiate the notion of the artist's hand as a signifier of meaning, yet it is clear that Stella's work grows out of his New York School forebears. Indeed, the series is an important link between the work of reductive abstract expressionists like Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman and the Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Just as Reinhardt and Newman assert the fundamental identity of any work of art as an object first and foremost, so, too, did Stella explain the relationship between an artist and his composition: "My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object. Any painting is an object and anyone who gets involved enough in this finally has to face up to the objectness of whatever it is that he's doing. He is making a thing... 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 in B. Glaser, "Questions to Stella and Judd," Art News, September, 1966, p. 6).

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