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

Point of Pines

Details
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Point of Pines
signed and titled 'F. Stella Point of Pines' (on the stretcher)
enamel on canvas
84 7/8 x 109 ½ in. (215.5 x 278.1 cm.)
Painted in 1959.
Provenance
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Collection of the artist, circa 1968
Dominique Lévy Gallery, Geneva
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
L. Rubin, Frank Stella: Paintings 1958 to 1965, A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1986, pp. 86-87 (illustrated in color).
Frank Stella, exh. cat., Madrid, Museo National Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 1995, p. 35 (illustrated in color).
Black Paintings: Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, exh. cat., Munich, Haus der Kunst, 2006, pp. 49, 103 and 203, no. 82 (illustrated in color).
R. Smith, "Laying the Tracks Others Followed: Frank Stella’s Early Work at L&M Arts," New York Times, 27 April 2012, p. C25 (installation view illustrated in color).
Exhibited
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Leo Castelli: Ten Years, February 1967.
Mayagüez, University of Puerto Rico, Frank Stella, April 1969.
Andover, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 7 Decades, 1900-1970: 7 Group Shows—Paintings and Sculptures by Alumni of Phillips Academy, May-July 1969.
New York, Museum of Modern Art; London, Hayward Gallery; Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum; Pasadena Art Museum; Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, Frank Stella, March 1970-May 1971, p. 35 (New York, illustrated in color); no. 5 (Toronto)
Baltimore Museum of Art, Frank Stella: The Black Paintings, November 1976-January 1977, p. 65 (illustrated).
Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Frank Stella: Black Paintings 1958-1960, Cones and Pillars 1984-1987, November 1988-February 1989, p. 45, no. 11 (illustrated in color).
New York, L & M Arts, Frank Stella: Black, Aluminum, Copper Paintings, April-June 2012, pp. 40-41 (illustrated in color).
Sale Room Notice
The updated provenance for this lot reads:
 
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Collection of the artist, circa 1968
DL Fine Art SA, Geneva
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Joanna Szymkowiak
Joanna Szymkowiak

Lot Essay

Frank Stella’s Black Paintings, executed between 1959 and 1960, marked a significant turning point in the postwar artistic canon. While artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline were primarily concerned with the supremacy of the gesture, Stella produced a series of striking black canvases in which the emblematic nature of the gesture seemed to have been eradicated altogether. Point of Pines is one such painting; a dramatic, large-scale work in which bands of black enamel are carefully and methodically painted directly onto raw canvas. Unlike the generation of artists that preceded him, Stella was not interested in the emotional rawness of action painting, he was concerned purely with the act of applying pigment to the surface of the canvas. Gone are the allegorical and psychological ramifications of painting. Instead, these works were the embodiment of what would become one of the most famous quotes of postwar art history: his 1966 statement that “What you see is what you see” (F. Stella, quoted in W.S. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, pp. 41-42). Thus, Stella’s Black Paintings have become one of the most celebrated series of postwar paintings, and a number of examples from the series are now part of prestigious museum collections, including The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959 (Museum of Modern Art, New York); Arundel Castle, 1959 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.); Club Onyx, 1959 (Baltimore Museum of Art); and Tuxedo Junction, 1960 (van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven).

Across this sweeping canvas (named after a promontory in the Massachusetts Bay which used to house an amusement park), Stella lays down 35 bands of black enamel paint applied directly onto the surface of raw, unprimed canvas. From a distance, these bands appear precise, carefully painted so that their diagonal paths converge at the apex of the painting; each stripe is separated by a thin sliver of raw canvas—giving the overall effect of crisp pinstripe. Each band is then painted over three or four times, creating a film thick enough to detach the band from the raw canvas. In places the enamel appears flat and matte, elsewhere the drying pigment appears to have been applied in a more uneven fashion, reflecting a glossy, reflective surface. Upon close inspection, the regimented stripes of Point of Pines display a high degree of pentimenti. Stella painted each of the stripes freehand, without the use of graphic lines or tape to guide him. Although he often sketched out potential configurations on paper before he started painting, Stella was often unsure about exactly how many stripes there would be. To arrive at the strict geometry of the diagonally focused Black Paintings such as Point of Pines, the artist would often start at the mid-point of the canvas and paint outwards, only discovering how many stripes each painting would contain as the work progressed. As the distinguished art historian, and early supporter of Stella’s work, William Rubin noted, “Despite the fact that all his patterns were symmetrical and were made up of bands whose segments were straight, the freehand method produced effects that were anything but geometrical” (W. Rubin, ibid., p. 21). The artist himself reiterated this point, saying, “When I’m painting the picture, I’m really painting a picture. I may have a flat-footed technique, or something like that, but still, to me, the thrill, or the meat of the thing, is the actual painting. I don’t get any thrill out of laying it out…. I like the painting part, even when it is difficult. It’s that which seems most worthwhile to address myself to” (F. Stella, quoted by W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 37).

The symmetrical nature of Point of Pines was Stella’s solution for dealing with the problems of what Rubin dubbed “relational painting.” As a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, the artist felt that his predecessors’ work—based on the idea of the ‘all-over attack’—had never really delivered. In their practice, Stella felt that they were inconsistent, having particular trouble dealing with the corners, and dealt too much of the conventional idea of the push/pull of various painterly gestures. “The obvious answer,” he responded, “was symmetry—make them the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The only solution I arrived at—and there are possibly quite a few, although I only know of one other, color density—forces illusionistic space of the painting at a constant rate by using a regulated pattern” (F. Stella, quoted by W. Rubin, ibid., p. 21). In an interview in 1972, the artist discussed how his new way of painting reflected a different approach. “Through the use of a flat regulated pattern, and I felt that flatness was an absolute necessity for modernist painting at the time. I felt the Black Paintings were right, there was a lot that things that were in those paintings that weren’t in any other paintings at the time, and it seemed to me that they were concerns that painting had to address itself” (F. Stella, quoted in an untitled recording, 1972. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN_rRCfRdmQ).

Taller than most humans and measuring more than nine feet across, the imposing scale of Point of Pines is as vital to the overall presence of the painting as the painted surface. When they were first exhibited, the Black Paintings—with their flat, monochromatic surface—were diametrically opposed to the prevailing gestural excess of Abstract Expressionism. On seeing these works for the first time, William Rubin exclaimed, “…the ‘presence’ of the pictures seemed to me ‘eerie,’ had something to do with the strangeness and bleakness of Stella’s black which, instead of absorbing the light, seemed irregularity to refract it, the enamel having formed a film of uneven density on the surface” (W. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, pp. 42 – 44). Stella explained, “Spanning the entire surface produces an effect of change of scale—the painting is more on the surface, there is less depth. And the picture seems bigger because it doesn’t recede in certain ways or fade at the edge” (F. Stella, quoted in ibid. p. 39).

Stella’s Black Paintings were the artist’s first major series of work. In 1958, less than a year after graduating from Princeton University with a degree in art history, he began working on these canvases while also earning a living painting houses, using his house painter’s brushes and paint to map out these large-scale canvases. “He approached the canvas the way he would paint a house, as a form of geography to be mapped out and covered, mimicking the edges of the canvas and continuing to paint the lines concentrically until he ran out of blank space” (M. Auping, “The Phenomenology of Frank / Materiality and Gesture Make Space” in M. Auping, Frank Stella: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2016, p. 17).

The origins of this series can be traced back to 1958, when the artist visited an exhibition of Jasper Johns’s Target and Flag paintings at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. He observed how the stripes did not float arbitrarily on their ground, instead they filled it from edge to edge. “Learning how to make abstract paintings is just about learning how to paint, literally learning what paint and canvas do. Paint and canvas are not spiritual” (F Stella, quoted by M. Auping, ibid., p. 16). As was the case with Johns, Stella believed that ideology and logic trumped emotion.

Stella’s first gallery show was held at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in April 1959, where his work was admired by Dorothy Miller, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Impressed, Miller invited Stella to take part in an exhibition titled Sixteen Americans, the now legendary show which also introduced Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines and Jasper Johns’s Targets and Flags to a wider audience. Miller selected four works from the Black Paintings series (The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, Arundel Castle, Die Fahne Hoch!, and Tomlinson Square Park) for inclusion in the exhibition, with Alfred H. Barr Jr. then acquiring The Marriage of Reason and Squalor for the museum’s permanent collection (the artist’s first acquisition by a museum collection). Alongside the work of Rauschenberg and Johns, Stella’s work stood out as being different from that of his contemporaries. In the catalogue for the exhibition, his friend Carl Andre wrote “Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting…. His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas” (C. Andre, quoted by A. Weinberg, “The End Depends Upon the Beginning,” in M. Auping, Ibid., p. 1).

With their monochromatic palette, and flat, unmodulated surfaces, Stella’s Black Paintings might be regarded as being the opposite of what had gone before, a rejection of the supremacy of Abstract Expressionism. William Rubin for one felt that many so-called ‘action painters’ had gotten lazy, and that Stella offered a breath of fresh air. “The dominant direction since the heyday of Abstract Expressionism has not been abstract painting,” Rubin claimed. “There were however a small group of painters that came along in the later ‘50s, and early ‘60s, that created paintings of equal force and equal power as the best of Abstract Expressionism, but which is very different in character. Its posture is not romantic, its method is not improvisational; it’s a kind of more classical, more controlled art that in a certain sense reacted against the action conception of Abstract Expressionism, and against what by the late 1950s, had come to be a lot of very bad painting that had come to be made in Abstract Expressionism’s name” (W. Rubin, quoted in an untitled recording, 1972. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cN_rRCfRdmQ.)

However, for many of the critics and artists who regarded Pollock, de Kooning and Newman as almost untouchable gods, Stella’s paintings were an extension of the same path which they had journeyed down. Michael Auping, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and curator of the 2016 retrospective on the artist’s work, maintains that Stella’s Black Paintings were not a rejection of the tenets of Abstract Expressionism, merely his response to it. “The Black Paintings absorbed the all-over composition of Pollock’s classic Abstract Expressionist drip paintings and, in particular, the graphic directness of his late monochrome black paintings (also made with black enamel). They can be interpreted as a dark meditation on Barnett Newman’s vertical stripe, or ‘zip,’ in which a linear gesture is tactile, but positioned against a smoother ground to create a kind of frontal assault on the viewer” (M. Auping, “The Phenomenology of Frank / Materiality and Gesture make Space,” in
M. Auping, op cit., p. 17).

Painted when Frank Stella was just 23 years old, Point of Pines is a remarkably accomplished painting for an artist who was only just beginning his career. Along with the other twenty-eight canvases in the Black Paintings series, they marked the artist out as one of the most innovative of his generation. These early paintings, along with his shaped Aluminum Paintings (1960) and Copper Paintings (1960 – 1961), also marked a turning point in the history of the painted canvas, away from the illusionary and towards a new—totally revolutionary—role. Speaking in 1966, nearly a decade after Point of Pines, Stella said, “I always get into arguments with people who want to retain the ‘old values’ in painting—the ‘humanistic’ values that they always find on the canvas. If you pin them down, they always end up asserting that there is something there besides the paint on the canvas. My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. If the painting were lean enough, accurate enough or right enough, you would just be able to look at it. 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 W.S. Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, pp. 41-42).

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