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Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
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Property From the Estate of Robert Rehder
Frank Stella (b. 1936)

Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb)

Details
Frank Stella (b. 1936)
Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb)
enamel on canvas mounted on Masonite
11 ¾ x 11 ¾ in. (29.8 x 29.8 cm.)
Painted circa 1959.
Provenance
Robert Rehder, Oxford, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1960
By descent from the above to the present owner
Exhibited
Madison, University of Wisconsin, Chazen Museum of Art, 1975-1990 (on loan).

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Painted circa 1959, Frank Stella’s Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) is an exceptional, intimately scaled example of the artist’s celebrated Black Paintings. Over the course of sixteen months between 1958 and the end of 1959, Stella painted twenty-three large-scale Black Paintings and six smaller ones, making for a limited, yet radical body of work that sent shock waves rippling through the art world when they were first unveiled in 1959. This intimate, gem-like painting exemplifies the artist’s method, where nine concentric bands of flat, black enamel paint have been painted onto a square of canvas mounted on Masonite. Radiating outward from a central axis in a series of u-shaped bands, the painting exemplifies the compositional rigor and restrained elegance for which the Black Paintings are well known. Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) is the study for the large-scale Black Painting from 1959 in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Having been in the same collection for nearly sixty years, Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) boasts a distinguished history of ownership. It was acquired directly from the artist by the American poet and literary scholar Robert Rehder, who was one of Stella’s friends at Princeton, and in whose family it has remained ever since.
Executed in the black enamel paint for which he is now famous, the succinct and precise geometry of Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) is comprised of nine concentric bands of black paint that radiate outward from a central axis. The thin layers of black enamel have been painted atop the bare panel, allowing a hint of texture to show through the otherwise flat plane. This refers back to the painting as an object, a key factor that would determine the course of Minimalist art. Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb), though, is not a dry, theoretical object; it is instead, a softly glimmering work that is suffused with a lambent inner light—a remarkable feat considering the painting’s all-black appearance. Indeed, the soft flicker imbued within the succinct, black strokes of Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb)makes it a hallmark of Stella’s Black Paintings. The division between each band also imparts a degree of perspectival depth to the piece, so that the design almost appears to float, lifting ever so slightly upward and out of the canvas plane. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum observed, “these rectilinear relationships...radiate beyond the canvas edges. Stella’s rectangles, whether expanding concentrically or segmented by the perimeter, imply infinite extendibility, the taut fragments of a potentially larger whole” (R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, Baltimore, 1971, p. 17).
Created over the course of sixteen months beginning in the autumn of 1958, Frank Stella’s Black Paintings rank among the most vital contributions to the field of twentieth century art. They comprise a very small group of just twenty-three large-scale paintings and six smaller ones. Of these, over half are in museum collections. They represent the crucial break with tradition that was so needed at the end of the 1950s, when the Abstract Expressionist gesture, and the emotive expression of the artist’s hand, had reached its logical conclusion. As a wave of secondary artists had been painting in a more derivative style, many artists and critics felt that Abstract Expressionism had been leached of its original meaning and intent. Enter Frank Stella, who had just graduated from Princeton and had been painting houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn all summer. Stella effectively ended the decade on a new note, closing the book on Abstract Expressionism and ushering in a brave, new world, where sleek surface met with geometric precision, kick starting a radical movement called Minimalism.
Stella’s critical eye had been honed during his undergraduate studies at Princeton in the mid-1950s, where he was surrounded with a forward-thinking group of friends and teachers that urged his work in new directions. It was there that he met Robert Rehder, a promising young literary scholar and poet, who had matriculated to Princeton in 1953. A year later, Rehder won the Morris W. Croll Poetry Prize, and he went on to have a lengthy and successful career as a keen-eyed, cool-witted poet whose sharp insights about the everyday world bear striking similarities with that of Stella’s paintings. Rehder and Stella became lifelong friends; in 2009, Rehder featured Stella’s painting Hyena Stomp on the cover of his latest collection of poetry, First Things When. He also wrote poems inspired by Stella’s Black Paintings, and began a series inspired by Stella’s Moby Dick paintings that he had seen while visiting the artist in New York. Rehder seemed to possess an almost preternatural appreciation for Stella’s work, and his musings on the artist’s career reveal his natural affinity for the artist and his process: “Poets, and indeed all artists, are driven by the need to create something new, different from what other people have done... This poses a special problem for the artist whose being depends on communicating. It is solved, in part, by the fact that every discovery or act of self-revelation opens the way to new unexplored areas” (R. Rehder, Metaphor is the Name of the Game; accessed via http://www.robertrehder.com/site/Surprises/Metaphor_1.html).
When the Black Paintings were exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1959, a ripple of shock waves spread out across the art world. William Rubin, the influential Museum of Modern Art curator, wrote in Art International that he was “almost mesmerized by their magical presence” (W. Rubin, Art International, Jan. 1960, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 24). That same year, another Museum of Modern Art curator, Dorothy Miller, included four of Stella’s Black Paintings in her influential exhibition 16 Americans in the winter of 1959 to 1960. Again, Robert Rosenblum explains the impact of Black Paintings and what they meant for the history of art: “One constant, at least, of this decade is the importance of the Black Paintings as epochal art history; for now, like then, they retain the watershed quality so apparent when they were first seen in 1959. Today too they have the character of a willful and successful manifesto that would wipe out the past of art and that would establish the foundation stones for a new kind of art” (R. Rosenblum, quoted in S. Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography, New York, 1995, p. 46).
Stella began the Black Paintings shortly after finishing up his coursework at Princeton and moving to New York. He moved into a loft on Eldridge street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and to support himself, he worked as a housepainter three or four days a week. During this formative period, he began to tire of the influence that Abstract Expressionism still held over the art world, especially in the newspapers and magazines that he read at the time: “it began to be kind of obvious and...terrible, and you began to see through it," Stella recalled. “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” (F. Stella, Frank Stella, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1970, p. 13). In early 1958, Stella had also encountered the work of Jasper Johns for the first time, and he was struck by Johns’s use of inherently flat pictorial design, which he repeated with a “rhythm and interval” that gave Stella the courage to try some of the same concepts in his own paintings. All of the Black Paintings were created using the same black enamel paint that he had used as a house painter, and he constructed his own canvases, mostly out of necessity.
Although Stella’s Black Paintings are not representational in the traditional sense, his titles often allude to actual places or things. The present Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) painting is the preliminary first act for the larger seven-foot by eight-foot painting in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In this case, Stella may have referred to the actual Getty Tomb that is located in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. Getty Tomb was commissioned in 1890 by the lumber baron Henry Harrison Getty, as a tomb for his wife. It was built by the famed architect Louis Sullivan, in a remarkable display of beaux arts architecture within an essentially rectilinear format. Its design is strikingly similar to Stella's painting. Its square-shaped, geometric design that is a mix of decorative beaux arts elements with simple, repeated geometric shapes. The lower register of the building is plain, comprised of unadorned rectangular blocks, while just above the entrance to the tomb, Sullivan has placed an array of rectangular stones that radiate outward in a fan shape that parallels the forms of Stella's own Getty Tomb. Although Stella’s Black Paintings certainly never mimicked the natural world, it is tempting to consider that Chicago's Getty Tomb may have provided an intriguing visual parallel.
A lingering visual relic from a legendary moment in the history of 20th Century art, Frank Stella’s Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) is a brilliant, gem-like painting that bears witness to the earth-shattering developments of Minimalist art. Sharing visual affinities with the large-scale painting Getty Tomb, Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) remains one of Stella’s best paintings from this important era. It is distinguished with its exceptional provenance, having been owned and appreciated by the artist’s friend and champion, the distinguished American poet Robert Rehder, who keenly understood the ideas and themes that underpinned Stella’s work. Untitled (Study for Getty's Tomb) remains a hallmark of the artist’s Black Paintings, making it a powerful visual testament to the restrained elegance and conceptual rigor of Minimalist art, and indeed a standout painting from this pioneering moment in the history of 20th Century art.

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