Frank Stella, New York, 1960. Photograph by Hollis Frampton, Courtesy of The Estate of Hollis Frampton
“It’s just a powerful pictorial image. It’s so good that you can use it, abuse it, and even work against it to the point of ignoring it. It has a strength that’s almost indestructible. It’s one of those givens, and it’s very hard for me not to paint it.”
Frank Stella cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Frank Stella 1970-1987, 1987, p. 43

Dating from 1968, just two years before Frank Stella became the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—making Stella the youngest artist ever to receive that honor, to this day--Untitled (Single Concentric Square) epitomizes the conceptual and aesthetic concerns that have characterized the very best of the artist’s output. A mesmerizing sequence of greyscale bands, their somber symmetry conjuring visions of a darkening corridor or protruding pyramid, the present work is an emphatic testament to Stella’s virtuosic mastery of the painterly medium. The composition is laden with a hypnotic rhythm that irresistibly draws the viewer’s eye to slide towards the dark void at the center of the canvas, typifying the sense of power and control that have made Stella one of the most influential artists of the Post-War era.

Left: PIET MONDRIAN, Composition in Black and White (Painting 1), 1926. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

In its labyrinthine arrangement, with grayscale squares expanding out from the dark epicenter to the outermost edges of the canvas, Untitled (Single Concentric Square) exemplifies the exhilarating optical power which distinguishes the Concentric Squares, a limited body of work commenced in 1962 which stands among Stella’s best known and most beloved series. Composed of eleven concentric “squared” bands of equal width, starting with a pure white and moving through to a pitch black, the structure of the work pulls the viewer into the composition. However, this is no simplistic visual trick; within the present work, equal emphasis is placed on the artist’s hand, as the narrow strips of primed canvas left between each block of paint emphatically state both the materiality of the work and the fragility of the illusion. It is this element of the painting that aligns Stella more with Jasper Johns and Franz Kline than Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Stella’s close friends and two of the principle progenitors of Minimalism. Although Stella’s influence on the Minimalist movement cannot be overstated, he still insists on the primacy of his hand, and bare sections of the painting that hum with humanity are the key to this enterprise.

Jasper Johns, ALPHABET, 1959. ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, IL. Art © 2020 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Stunningly beautiful in both its conceptual daring and searing sharpness of execution, Untitled (Single Concentric Square) puts Stella’s unwavering control on dazzling display. The crisp regularity and rigid symmetry of the painting’s configuration maintains direct simplicity and absolute clarity, emphatically articulating the relationship of the two-dimensional picture plane to its three-dimensional support. While de-emphasizing the painterly gesture archetypal of Abstract Expressionism in favor of a flat, rectilinear geometric sameness, the edges of each line within the concentric square betray the hand-painted nature of Stella’s ruled lines that is akin to the brushy outlines of Barnett Newman’s zips. Whereas the abstraction of his action painter antecedents embraced an impassioned immediacy, Stella’s painting is cool, calculated, and mathematical. The absence of color in the grayscale Untitled (Single Concentric Square) is emblematic of this approach, exemplifying Stella’s desire to simplify and reduce color and form to its most essential clarity. Opposite to the improvisational drama of Abstract Expressionism Stella turned to diagrammed, regulated patterns. This aptitude for rigorous standardization speaks to Stella’s roots as a house painter: during his first six months in New York in 1958, Stella supported himself primarily by painting apartments. Powerfully embodied within the present work, this experience remained a core element of his practice, as he decided to employ only the six primary and secondary colors readily available in commercial cans of house paint. This avoidance of chromatic decision paralleled the nature of the square concentric format. Using the housepainter’s technique and tools provided a method of paint application that echoed the predetermined grid pattern, driving any illusionistic space or personal heroism out of the painting.

Agnes Martin, The Tree, 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2020 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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." (Ibid., p. 78) The absence of color in the present work is likewise emblematic of Stella’s larger approach, harkening back to the conceptual intent of his Benjamin Moore paintings of the early 1960s, and even to their predecessors, the Black Paintings of 1958; just as the crisp edges of each expanding concentric square invoke 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. Untitled (Single Concentric Square) is therefore a triumphant response, not only to the weighty legacy of Abstract Expressionism 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." (Ibid., p. 76) Nowhere is this concern more evident than in the theater of the present work’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 the gallery and into a recessional space of its own.