Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Property from the Collection of Patricia and Ernst Jan Hartmann
Frank Stella (b. 1936)

Gray Scramble IX (Single)

Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Gray Scramble IX (Single)
titled 'Gray Scramble IX (single)' (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
69 1/8 x 69 1/8 in. (175.6 x 175.6 cm.)
Painted in 1968-1969.
Lawrence Rubin Gallery, New York
Dayton's Gallery 12, Minneapolis
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
Private collection, Italy
Catani-Tananbaum Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1979

Brought to you by

Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

A fascinating exploration of technical prowess and unique color combinations, Frank Stella’s vibrant Gray Scramble IX (Single) (1968-69) delightfully teases both eye and mind, affirming the work as a critical example from the series considered to be the apex of Stella’s classic period. Painted just one year before the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark retrospective rendered Stella the youngest artist to receive such an honor, the present lot considers the very problems with which the artist had been concerned since the commencement of his practice. How does the painter make a complete picture, fully resolved in spatial composition and color juxtaposition? Stella’s solution to each comes to fruition in the Concentric Square paintings, which display an understanding of pictorial nuances only fitting to thinker-turned-painter Frank Stella (b. 1936).
Consisting of 12 individual bands of color separated by runnels of raw canvas, Gray Scramble IX alternates hues in logical sequence radiating from the center of the composition. A square of white anchors the first (or is it the last?) value of grays, while surrounding violet kicks off (or does it round out?) the spectrum according to the primary and secondary color wheel. Grays darken and the rainbow reads backward as one progresses toward the extreme edges of the canvas; by interspersing these two recognizable patterns, Stella engineers a pulsing illusion of warmth and depth that simultaneously recedes and extends from and to the spectator. As a testament to his thorough knowledge of art historical roots, Stella’s square loosely recalls an aerial view of Mesopotamian ziggurats – stepped temples to the gods erected in the seat of global civilization. In the same way these ancient spaces of worship commanded respect, Stella’s quadr-icon exudes stately presence that, according to the artist, remains unmatched in his oeuvre: “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, Frank Stella: 1970-1987, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987, p. 48). Such simplicity masks the foundational yet complex geometry that governs the picture. Though the colored bands take visual precedence, the interceding strips of equally spaced canvas define the overall composition by confining color to specific boundaries. Precise corners perfectly align to imply a sense of stretching outward movement, animating the flat surface of evenly applied alkyd paint. Despite such sophisticated design, Stella proclaimed commitment to his technical use of house paint “straight out of the can” and its attendant tools, fusing the highly cultured with the quotidian in a gesture as smooth as his swaths of paint.
After graduating from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Stella studied history at Princeton University, indulging his desire to paint on the side with lessons under William Seitz, a leading academic of the avant-garde in post-war America, and Stephen Greene, an Abstract Expressionist painter in his own right. Together with classmates Michael Fried and Walter Darby Bannard, Stella yearned for the burgeoning art scene developing on New York’s 9th and 10th Streets in the 1950s. Finally, in 1958, Stella joined the ranks of the up-and-coming artists, taking a studio on the Lower East Side and ascending almost immediately to fame. Stella’s quintessential Black Paintings, named for locales around his new Manhattan home, caught the eye of gallerist Leo Castelli who spared no time in adding Stella to his power-house stable; just one year later, inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans show cemented Stella’s place in the canon. In these years, the last sparks of Abstract Expressionism were fizzling out, and the gestural masters, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning among them, were losing inspiration. To a young, ambitious Stella, “everybody was tired…the field was sort of open. All you had to do was do it” (F. Stella quoted in W. Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970, p. 7). Such action for Stella required turning the avant-garde on its head by excising from painting the visceral emotion and romantic sensibilities embodied by the now-old guard. To revolutionize art, Stella resolved to go directly back to the craft itself, revealing canvas, workmanship and critical theory along the way: “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, a record of flux” (Ibid., p. 13). By seeking this holistic art – one independent of feeling and perception – Stella identified himself with the Minimalist cause of contemporaries Donald Judd and Carl Andre. In a balance akin to that found in the best of the concentric squares, however, Stella also maintained his association with the Color Field painters who confronted the tension between overlapping and extending variations of hue in search of visual equilibrium.
The particular title of the Scramble series, of which the present lot is an excellent example, derives from a 1967 dance piece conceived by renowned contemporary choreographer Merce Cunningham who had recently appointed Jasper Johns as the company’s artistic advisor. Familiar for both being Castelli artists with nearby studios, Johns recruited the young Stella to design Scramble’s costumes and set, for which Stella produced strips of chromatic fabric on movable poles – a living representation of the patterns that would come to comprise the Scramble paintings the following year. This merging of art and life was exactly the kind of revolutionary dimension Stella had been seeking since realizing the power of using three-inch-deep stretchers in his early New York years. Initially motivated by efficiency, Stella “turned one-by-threes on edge to make a quick frame, and then I liked it” (F. Stella quoted in “‘What You See Is What You See’: Donald Judd and Frank Stella on the End of Painting, in 1966”, ARTNews, 10 July 2015). In this accidental way, Stella took up Princeton peer Michael Fried’s discussion of the difference between the subject of an artwork and the artwork’s physical presence. Ever the quiet radical, however, Stella claimed that pushing the taut canvas further into the viewer’s space less emphasized its objecthood and more called attention to its existence as a painted, and thereby two-dimensional, surface. Thus, though the work undeniably occupies three-dimensional space, it simultaneously inhabits that sphere within which painted matter resides – it is both tangible and conceptual, real and imagined, as Stella himself believes the best art to be.
Through engagement with the critical reevaluation of the direction of painting in the post-war, post-painterly era, Stella ensured the enduring relevance of his work. More than fanciful optical ploys, the Concentric Squares challenge the reigning artistic narrative that a work is a direct reflection of the artist’s inner being. The present lot, insofar as it defies explanation, is not a “soul on canvas,” as it were, but an intellectual pursuit of the structures underlying the continued forward march of painting beyond its supposed end. Stella, as purveyor and producer of such material, stands apart from his contemporaries by sacrificing any emotional attachment to his surfaces, selecting titles as random as species of exotic birds to further emphasize the separation between creator and creation. In doing so, however, Stella carves for himself the very style he is trying to avoid – there is nothing more Stella than a Stella. “Rather than arid textbook diagrams or decorative titillations, [Stella’s] work produces not only a sense of passion and vitality tensely constrained, but also the quality of a taut, indivisible whole that, by implication, invades the space beyond the framing edges. The difference is rather like that between Mondrian and his disciples, between an art that distills all forces to a tough, irreducible nugget of radiant energy and one that creates an enclosed field of multiple, unfocused activities” (R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, Baltimore, 1971, p. 33).

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