A crucial figure in the art historical conversation between the gestural dance of Abstract Expressionism and the careful exactitude of Minimalism, Frank Stella’s paintings remain standouts of mid-20th century American art. Part of the artist’s personal collection, WWRL is a pivotal work that showcases the artist’s ability to work within preset parameters to create dynamic compositions that still entrance the viewer over fifty years later. On the occasion of the landmark exhibition Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the artist Carl Andre noted, “Art excludes the unnecessary. Frank Stella has found it necessary to paint stripes. There is nothing else in his painting. Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting. Symbols are counters passed among people. Frank Stella’s painting is not symbolic. His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting” (C. Andre in Sixteen Americans, exh. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1959). Using wide brushstrokes that circulate endlessly, Stella is able to strip down the art of painting to its bare minimum while simultaneously balancing on the cusp of illusionism.
The composition of WWRL is split neatly in half which allows Stella to adhere to his square format while also bringing on visual comparisons within the piece. One side is given over to a vibrant exploration of primary and secondary colors while the other is its grayscale equivalent. Exactly twice as long as it is tall, the painting exists as both two discrete sets of concentric squares and one contiguous unit. The artist wants the viewer to be able to look at each element on its own and as a duo which enforces ideas of binocular vision and how we view art. On the right, Stella constructs an undulating rainbow pattern that begins and ends with a deep violet. Expanding from the center, rectilinear bands of blue, green, yellow and orange build up to the central ring of red. The pattern then reverses course and marches back down the spectrum to end where it began in an even swath of purple. The left section is similar in its progression, but trades in the colorful palette for an ordered array of grayscale that creates the striking optical illusion of a pulsating, vibrating canvas. Starting and ending with a silvery gray, the concentric levels meet in a black square that brings allusions to the artist’s breakthrough Black Paintings of the early 1960s. Indeed, the manner in which Stella applies paint to the canvas is strikingly similar as each three-inch strip runs parallel to its neighbor and is separated by a thin band of unpainted surface.
Realized in 1967, three years before the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, WWRL shows Stella’s interest in almost mathematical compositions that foreground the shape of the canvas and a precision of paint application. During this time, in such monumental works as Harran II (1967) and his Irregular Polygon series of the preceding year, the painter broke with the rectilinear constraints of the Abstract Expressionist canvas by introducing sweeping arabesques and jaunty angles in his supports. However, though pushing against the traditional support structure in some series, Stella continued to explore the ways in which an artist might reduce illusionistic depth and bring the flatness of paint and canvas to the fore. Introducing optical effects and experimenting with the effect of pairing color and grayscale side-by-side as in WWRL, he was able to continue this conversation ad infinitum. The critic Robert Rosenblum observed, “these rectilinear relationships never produce discrete, self-sufficient shapes, but 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). By devising canvases that seem to radiate outward into our own space, Stella was able to suspend the objectness of his works and create something far beyond their base materials.
Never one to adhere to preconceived notions of what art could be, Stella’s output has been varied and has often strayed from the mainstream. His adoption of the large canvases promoted by Abstract Expressionism was at odds with the meticulous linework and careful planning seen in much of his oeuvre. Nonetheless, these seemingly disparate parts come together in works like WWRL where the artist takes a simple visual trope, a set of eleven nested squares that echo the perimeter of their surface, and displays two iterations that have decidedly striking optical effects. The black, white and gray operate on a similar tonal range, and as such produce a visual vibration within the composition. The colors, on the other hand, appear more flat and emphasize the surface of the work rather than creating an illusionary depth. Stella noted, “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). By foregrounding the visual qualities of his paintings and stressing that each work should be questioned as both an image and an object, Stella helped to create a critical link between the Abstract Expressionists and the new ideas of Minimalism.