Frank Stella’s fascination with what he deemed to be the current shortcomings of structure, form and the materiality of painting began when Stella saw Jasper Johns’ now iconic Flag at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958. Stella’s drive, fed by the reiterations of Johns’ Flags and Targets propelled him into an imaginative engagement with rhythm, repetition and objectivity. Reacting against the dominant Abstract Expressionist tendencies of the time, he focused exclusively on the structure he found in symmetrical and linear compositions and the materiality of the canvas. This reductive approach to painting aligned him with the beginnings of the minimalist movement. In 1959 Leo Castelli became his representative and four of his paintings from the period were included in the pivotal Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959-1960; Stella’s presence in the New York art scene was thus established.
An achievement of powerful vitality, For Picabia conveys a sense of the artist encountering, engaging and solving problems of form and content. Executed in bold primary colors, For Picabia expertly pushes the boundaries of its two dimensional rectangular canvas. The geometric pattern is painted in meticulous and perfectly placed concentric squares of color resulting in a pulsating optical illusion within the constraints of its formulaic and rigid composition. Separated by perfectly outlined thin bands of raw canvas, the adjacent squares of saturated blue and red recede inwards one moment and protrude the next, competing for attention. Intermittently, intersecting diagonal lines appear which are not even there, constantly challenging perception at the same time establishing the painting’s objecthood.
Throughout his oeuvre, Stella plays with titles and art historical references. As a young artist searching for his own voice and style, Stella naturally was influenced by his contemporaries and found the urge to push the boundaries of the established and successful who came before him. Works from the sixties reference Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell amongst others. The title of the present work For Picabia perhaps references Stella’s “preoccupation with wiping out Cubism, whose vestigial illusions of luminous, layered spaces he hoped to replace with another, fresher kind of spatial construction” (Robert Rosenblum quoted in L. Rubin, Frank Stella Paintings 1958 to 1965: A Catalogue Raisonne, New York, 1986, p. 11).
Stella’s use of color emerged in the 1960’s with the Benjamin Moore Series, for which he chose six Benjamin Moore paint colors (the primaries: red, yellow and blue, and the secondaries: orange, green and purple). Instead of mixing the colors, he used them in their pure form, directly from the can. This investigation of color was accompanied by an enhanced precision in execution introducing heightened focus on depth and illusion. Painted in 1961, For Picabia is a prime example of Stella’s most classic formal and reductive paintings from this period.
In For Picabia , the contrast between the precise geometric pattern and the optical vibration caused by its composition strikes a visually appealing balance resulting in a fresh and impactful composition demonstrative of Stella’s successful and innovative style. As observed by Robert Rosenblum, “The overriding effect of Stella’s work continues to affirm his unswerving faith in the absolute autonomy of art and in abstraction as the only viable language” (R. Rosenblum quoted in L. Rubin, Frank Stella Paintings 1958 to 1965: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1986, p. 23).