In its labyrinthine arrangement, with grayscale squares expanding out from the white epicenter to the outermost edges of the canvas, Sight Gag exemplifies the exhilarating optical power which distinguishes the Concentric Squares, and particularly those of the mid-1970s, within Stella’s career. Created in the wake of the full-scale retrospective of Stella’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970—making him, at age 34, the youngest artist ever to receive such an honor—the Concentric Squares of the mid-1970s were executed on a grander scale than ever before, imparting a newfound heroism and epic complexity. Following a period of intense experimentation with shaped canvases and unexpected sculptural compositions, predominantly focusing on the Polish Village series, the return to the Concentric Squares in the mid-1970s re-invigorated Stella with a sense of mathematical control; as he stated, "The effect of doing it 'by the numbers,' so to say, gave me a kind of guide in my work as a whole. Everything else, everything that was freer and less sequential, had to be at least as good—and that would be no mean achievement. The Concentric Squares created a pretty high, pretty tough pictorial standard. Their simple, rather humbling effect—almost a numbing power—became a sort of ‘control’ against which my increasing tendency in the seventies to be extravagant could be measured." (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Frank Stella 1970-1987, 1987, p. 44) Re-invested in the capacity for precision and controlled experimentation within the preordained concentric square template, Stella now approached his canvases with renewed vigor and authority and worked on a greater scale than before, all the while retaining the basic units of proportion and band-width as dictated by the mathematically predetermined square template. Expanding the size of the canvas enhanced not only the impression of monumental proportions, but also allowed for greater degrees of prismatic variation within the same palette and more nuanced relations of color, as on commanding display with Sight Gag. Moreover, the exaggerated format of the paintings gave them an entirely new relationship to the viewer’s body, transforming them from mere optical experiences to powerful physical entities; the present work’s title, a comedic theater term referring to a physical or situational impossibility that provides visual amusement, serves as sly indication that Stella intended his new, increasingly ambitious paintings to be so captivating as to be virtually performative. As the white, gray, and black lines advance outward from the center of the painting, distinguished by only the slightlest variation in grayscale, the eye is continually drawn back towards the pure white glow at the painting’s core, our gaze moving inward and outward as we attempt to visually process the bewitching optical mirage before us.
While Stella executed the Concentric Square paintings in both grayscale and color, the neutralized black-white-gray scheme of the present work achieves a nuanced elegance unrivaled within the series. As William Rubin observed: "The power of the governing pattern was such that it held the pictures together. It is not surprising that the color pictures were less successful than those in black, white, and gray, for the color system did not lock into the governing pattern as the value progression did." (William Rubin, Frank Stella, New York, 1970, p. 78) The absence of color in Sight Gag is likewise emblematic of Stella’s larger approach, harkening back to the conceptual intent of his Benjamin Moore paintings of the 1960s, and even to their predecessors, the Black Paintings of 1958; just as the crisp edges of each expanding concentric square invokes the governing parameter of the canvas edge, the absence of color exemplifies Stella’s desire to simplify and reduce each discrete variable of painting to a point of essential, irrefutable clarity. Sight Gag is therefore a triumphant response, not only to the weighty legacy of the Abstract Expressionists, but to Stella’s own prior work, prompting Rubin to comment: "The steplike succession of gray values in these pictures carried with it, for the first time in Stella’s work, an implication of recessional space which relates to his speculations regarding sculpture. The basic sequence suggested a kind of ziggurat or bellows, and the larger, multiple sequence pictures implied a more complex in-and-out movement of the space." (Ibid., p. 76) Whereas the abstraction of his action painter antecedents embraced an impassioned immediacy and dazzling chromatic variation, Stella’s painting is reserved, calculated, and mathematical; nowhere is this more evident than in the monumental theater of Sight Gag’s mesmerizing optical performance. Standing before its pulsating forms, the viewer is confronted with a resplendent expanse that, in its extraordinary prevision and subtle tonal variation at once pushes and pulls, withdraws and advances, both into our space and into a recessional space of its very own.
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