Scintillating in its rainbow of electric hues, Frank Stella’s Sacramento No. 6 from 1978 is among the outstanding milestones of Minimalism, emblematic of one of the most stridently revolutionary and cogent achievements in the canon of twentieth-century Contemporary Art. Representing the triumph of Frank Stella’s brilliant and incisive intellectual rigor as applied to the very tenets of painting itself, Sacramento No. 6 exists at the pinnacle of postwar abstract painting. The present work belongs to a small group of majestic Concentric Square paintings executed by the artist in the mid-1970s; perhaps the most comparable painting from the series in color and format, Sacramento Mall Proposal #4, is held in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The subject of an upcoming full-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art during its inaugural year in its new building, Stella’s significant output has been the recipient in recent years of a major critical re-appraisal. Stunningly beautiful in both its conceptual daring and searing sharpness of execution, Stella’s unwavering control is here on dazzling display. The crisp regularity and rigid symmetry of the painting’s configuration maintains direct simplicity and absolute clarity, harnessing a potent immediacy that articulates the relationship of the two-dimensional picture plane to its three-dimensional support. At and around every successive right angle, we are treated to a resplendent fury of bold prismatic radiance that at once epitomizes the stark rationality of Minimalism while blazing with an irrepressibly expressive chromatic energy.
The sheer literalism of Stella’s canvas and absolute eschewing of illusionism with the predetermined Concentric Square format allowed the artist to focus on the material properties of the picture plane—pure color here reigns supreme in its elemental brilliance. Beaming from the center outward toward the edges, fiery shades of crimson evolve into warm hues of orange and red before proceeding in a gradual development to lush verdant greens, cool royal blues, and deep indigo. Stella ever so subtly shifts the tonal gradation of the demarcating lines between each square, resulting in green edges that lighten as the composition moves inward. This slight variation in hue diverges with the stark but natural progression of fluctuating solid colors within the borders, resulting in a compelling optical hum. The power of the Concentric Square’s pictorial drama for the artist was reinforced by Stella’s later return to the format that he initiated in 1961-62 after a brief departure in form. While increasingly moving toward three-dimensionality in the mid-1970s, notably with his Polish Village series of shaped reliefs of 1970-73 and the Brazilian reliefs of 1974-75, Stella returned to his earlier Concentric Squares with the group of monumental Sacramento paintings of this period. Bringing renewed vigor and authority to the composition, Stella’s Concentric Squares of the mid-1970s were executed on a grand scale. Expanding the size of the canvas while retaining the basic units of proportion and band-width as in the smaller pictures enhanced not only the impression of monumental proportions, but allowed for more subdivided, complex relations of color than in the earlier pictures. On a larger scale, Stella could explore a greater degree of variation within the same color wheel.
Basing the systemic sequence of color from the progression of the rainbow, the colors of Sacramento No. 6 directly correspond to the string of hues that constitute the continuous spectrum of this natural phenomenon. After a period of severe experimentation with shaped canvases and unexpected sculptural compositions, the return to the Concentric Squares in the mid-1970s re-invested the artist 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) With his full-scale retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, at the age of 34 Stella became the youngest artist ever to receive such an honor, positioning the 1970s as a critical period in the artist’s career.
While de-emphasizing the painterly gesture archetypal of the Abstract Expressionist in favor of a flat, rectilinear geometric sameness, the edges of each line within the concentric square betray precise regularity, revealing the hand-painted nature of Stella’s ruled lines 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, exploring numerous possible chromatic variations within a given format. Opposite to the improvisational drama of the Abstract Expressionist theater, Stella turned to diagrammed, regulated patterns, a level of standardization that recalled his roots as a house-painter. During his first six months in New York, in 1958, Stella supported himself primarily by painting apartments; 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 given nature of the square concentric format—solving many problems for Stella right out of the gate. 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 heroicism out of the painting in an effort to counter the rhetoric surrounding Abstract Expressionism. As the primaries and secondaries progress from the center to the perimeter of the painting, the concentric composition seems to simultaneously inhale and exhale, appropriating a three-dimensionality by its volumetric experimentations with color.
Working within the parameters of his favored Concentric Square format, Stella’s prismatic hues here radiate with extreme chromatic intensity. An inevitable oscillation occurs between reading the painting for its phenomenal perceptual effects in how it explores the beauty of lines, shapes, surfaces, color and their interstices, together with the conceptual rigor in how it follows devastatingly simple rules dictated by the shape and size of Stella's stretcher and brush. The bounds of the given rectilinear template allowed Stella to focus increased energy on experimentations in the color spectrum; in Sacramento No. 6, the controlled boxes give way to extravagant kaleidoscopic brilliance. The authentic originality of Stella’s art, and the conviction with which he pursued its premises, was to provide a new challenge not only for American painting, but for all art at this pivotal mid-point of the last century. In the course of the 1960s and 1970s he would emerge as cartographer of one of the few genuinely new paths for the continued development of major non-figurative art.
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