Lot 112
  • 112

Frank Stella

500,000 - 700,000 USD
790,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Frank Stella
  • Kufa Gate
  • signed and dated '68 on the overlap
  • acrylic, fluorescent paint and graphite on canvas
  • 60 x 60 inches


Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Collection of Marcia and Frederick Weisman, Beverly Hills (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Catalogue Note

In a lecture delivered at Harvard in 1983, Frank Stella “positioned himself at the center of a crisis in contemporary art” (Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella, 2015, p. vii), comparable, in his eyes, to that faced by Italian painters forced to follow Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.  He suggested that Caravaggio, with his dramatic Baroque style, had found a way to push painting forward by discovering a new pictorial space, and implied that the challenge facing painters of his generation was to do the same in the aftermath of the giants of American Abstract Expressionism. This was a mantle Stella willingly took on, but in a contrarian fashion. Rather than seeking new fashions of representation, he sought to eliminate pictorial space altogether, and in doing so, to heighten the viewer’s experience of his work’s physical presence.

His Protractor series represents the culmination of this effort to shift the focus of painting from representation to bodily experience. The appeal is readily apparent. The works have a soft rhythm to them, rainbow-like bands that flow into one another, transforming the surrounding space into one that eschews stasis, embracing the fluidity of line and color above all else. The pieces have an energy which place Stella in a different set to the other Minimalists, for whom the movement represented “a classicizing reaction against the Romantic exuberance and self-celebration of Abstract Expressionist painting” (Kenneth Baker, Minimalism, New York 1988, p. 13). Whereas Stella’s Black Paintings were impenetrable, denying the viewer access to an inner or virtual dimension of the object, pieces such as Kufa Gate demonstrate more clearly what Stella meant when he stated that he was “rooted in Abstract Expressionism…and probably always will be” (the artist, ibid., p. 32). The Protractors were popular because they combined the accessibility and exuberance of Abstract Expressionism with the Minimalist aesthetic and theory, emphasizing the physicality and objective qualities of art over inner meaning and self-reflection.

Indeed, it was their very popularity which proved troublesome for the young Frank Stella. He was critized by other artists for having taken the edgy abstraction of Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd and Kenneth Noland and combined it with the decorative, “thought by many to be the nemesis of the avant-garde” (ibid.). In his words: “my main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting truly viable in a unequivocal abstract terms” (the artist cited in Sidney Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography, New York 1995, p. 109). This again was something that set Stella apart from the other Minimalists. Highly educated himself, he was not interested in pandering to the ivory-towered elite, and with his Protractors in public spaces all over the country, he became “a pioneer in bringing abstract art to a larger public” (Exh. Cat. New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella, 2015, p. 28). Images of the Protractors became ubiquitous, to the extent that John Baldessari made a silkscreen painting of one, entitled A 1968 PAINTING, describing the series as “the perfect example of popular abstraction” (ibid. p. 28).

Key to the appeal of the series was its simplicity and inherent nostalgia. As a drafting tool, protractors have been an elegant staple of the high-school math classroom for years, and yet their association with geometric, architectural doodling is inescapable. The precision of the tool, and its function in measuring angles, stands in opposition to the altogether more familiar feeling of procrastination associated both with the shape and the tool that created it, which in turn contrasts with the deliberate nature of Stella’s style. And yet these elements of ostensible contradiction only serve to emphasize the drift of the exterior narrative surrounding the series. As Philip Leider observed, Stella was “the least likely… of all the artists in America to risk the possibilities of letting loose the decorative id beneath the abstractionist ego” (Philip Leider cited in Sidney Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography, New York 1995, p. 129)—the paintings seemed anomalous. Stella broke not only the style that came before him by pushing painting in a new direction through his treatment of color, presence and line, like Caravaggio, but from his own style, something the Italian master would never have thought to do.