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Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
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Property from the Morton G. Neumann Family Collection
Frank Stella (b. 1936)

Sharpeville

Details
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Sharpeville
alkyd on canvas
85 3/8 x 85 3/8 in. (216.8 x 216.8 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Provenance
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, circa 1960s
Literature
Frank Stella, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, pp. 76 and 80 (illustrated).
L. Rubin, Frank Stella: Paintings 1958 to 1965, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1986, pp. 172-173, no. 186 (illustrated).
M. Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago and London, 1998, pp. 70, 251, 277 and 284, fig. 25 (illustrated).
Exhibited
Art Institute of Chicago, 66th Annual American Exhibition: Directions in Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, January-February 1963 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, Ferus Gallery, Frank Stella, February-March 1963.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Art Institute of Chicago, The Morton G. Neumann Family Collection, February-December 1980, vol.1, p. 127, no. 131 (illustrated); vol. 2, p. 92.

Brought to you by

Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

One of only five large-scale 1962 paintings executed in shifting tones of black, white, and gray, Frank Stella’s Sharpeville marks an important juncture in the history of postwar art. Although an admirer of Abstract Expressionism, the artist—just 26 years old when he painted the present work—takes abstract painting in a different direction. The striking configuration of concentric squares draws the viewer into hypnotic rhythms, pulling one into the heart of the composition. Through this new form of artistic vocabulary, using commercial painters’ materials and the cool geometric palette, Stella breaks with the dramatic painterly gestures of some of his predecessors. William Rubin, the curator of the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, wrote in the catalogue for the exhibition, “At a time when abstract painting is frequently characterized by narrowness of its stylistic range, Stella’s… [art] reveals an extraordinary variety, not simply in the aesthetic structuring of the pictures but in their expressive character” (W. Rubin, Frank Stella, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970).

Sharpeville was painted in New York during this year of explosive creativity, which not only saw Stella produce his groundbreaking Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes series, but the birth of Pop Art when Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup Cans (Museum of Modern Art, New York) were first exhibited to great acclaim at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Sharpeville leads an important group of five large grayscale paintings in the series, three of which are in major international museum collections including Cato Manor, Senzon Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; Les Indes Galantes (large version), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Line Up, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.

In viewing the dynamic composition of this monumental canvas, Stella assembles sixteen concentric “squared” bands; starting with an off-white outer band, the gradation of color becoming darker before arriving at a band of black paint, subsequently getting lighter until a band of white, before getting darker again, ending in a black void at the center. The resulting pulsating, hypnotic effect pulls the viewer back and forth between the exterior and interior elements into the heart of the painting. Between each of these bands, Stella leaves thin slivers of primed canvas visible, fragmenting the density of the composition while at the same time leaving intact the inherent quality of the canvas. The result is a painting which is full of movement, drawing the eye in through staccato effects before culminating in a mysterious universality at the painting’s core. In the process, it builds on the idea of the two-dimensional nature of the canvas that he first introduced with his iconic Black Paintings that revolutionized the art world a decade earlier, adding a sense of depth and movement.

Discarding the gestural brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and the representational nature of Pop Art, paintings such as Sharpeville become the physical embodiment of Stella’s much-quoted statement that “What you see is what you see.” Yet reading the artist’s full statement, one can see that there is a much more complex relationship. Rejecting the illusionistic, he stated that, painting should not be based on a representational pretense. “If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it.” (F. Stella, quoted in W. Rubin, ibid., pp. 41-42).

The origins of Stella’s remarkably fresh painterly practice can be traced back to the architectural abstractions of Franz Kline, yet it was after viewing Jasper Johns’s exhibition of Flag paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York in 1958 that Stella made his first real breakthrough. Impressed by the logic of Johns’s relationship between the paint and the canvas, Stella observed that paint no longer sat arbitrarily on the surface of the canvas, but rather filled the entire picture plane, from edge-to-edge.

Just as Johns did with his Flags, and Robert Ryman would do with his poetically executed “white canvases,” which celebrated the luscious impasto rich brushstrokes that filled the entire surface of the painting, Sharpeville explores what it takes to make a pure, abstract painting. “Learning how to make abstract paintings is just about learning how to paint, literally learning what paint and canvas do (F. Stella, quoted by M. Auping, “The Phenomenology of Frank/”The Materiality and Gesture Make Space,” in Frank Stella: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2015, p. 16).

The precision inherent in Stella’s canvases and the artist’s interest in the authentic nature of painting also led to him being regarded as a precursor to artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre. In stark contrast to his Abstract Expressionist forefathers, paintings such as Sharpeville finds kinship with the nascent stages of Minimalism. Stella’s refusal to indulge in non-traditional forms of paint (here he even used new kinds of chemically advanced paints instead of oil or acrylic) meant he deployed paint as if it were a found industrial object rather than a fine arts material, inspiring critics such as Donald Judd to point out Stella’s affinity with Duchamp, “…even the…colors…conform to this mechanized imagery that provides, as it were, an abstract counterpart to the more explicit use of industrial reproductive techniques (Ben-Day dots, commercial paints, stencils) in much Pop art of the mid-1960s” (R. Rosenbaum, op. cit.).

Although defiantly abstract, Stella’s paintings do contain references to temporal events. Here, the title references the Sharpeville massacre, a notorious incident that occurred in 1960 when white South African police officers opened fire on a large group of black protestors in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 of them, including nearly two dozen children; the stark nature of the palette is reflective of the divisive atmosphere of apartheid South Africa. Interestingly, the title of another black-and-white painting from this series, Cato Manor, references another event in South Africa in which a group of protestors attacked and viciously killed a group of policemen in Cato Manor, a working-class suburb of Durban; many believed this event was partly responsible for the police opening fire so indiscriminately in Sharpeville.

Still working at the age of 83, Frank Stella is widely regarded as one of the postwar period’s most revered artists. Recently the subject of a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, his assertion that painting should not be based on illusionistic pretense inspired a generation of artists and still reverberates today. Sharpeville was executed at a pivotal point in the artist’s career; having achieved critical acclaim with his revolutionary monochromatic Black Paintings, and later his colorful Protractor series, this canvas was executed seven years before he was honored with a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (at just 33 years old he was—and still is—the youngest artist to have been afforded such an honor). It demonstrates how his reductive approach resulted in the beginnings of the precise geometric patterns that led him to achieve the origins of his unique and moving abstractions—patterns that create optical vibration and appear to come alive and pulsate. They each defy two-dimensionality, and they cease to be static as the eye perceives them as intermittently protruding and receding. Stella sought a form of abstraction that would move out expansively past the edges of the artwork, saying, “Painting must extend well beyond the painting…clearly, abstraction has to move; it has to extend itself” (F. Stella, Working Space, Cambridge, 1987, p. 143).

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