In their hyper-energized vibrancy, the Moroccan paintings number among the most extraordinary achievements of Stella’s pioneering investigation of color. In these paintings, Stella began to apply the paint, for the first time, in a single layer, resulting in a picture plane of unprecedented evenness; in conjunction with the electrifying brilliance of the fluorescent paint, the Moroccan paintings absorb and radiate light with such intensity that the colors appear to virtually pulsate upon the canvas. Noting the importance of the Moroccan paintings and their predecessors, the Benjamin Moore paintings, within Stella’s career long interest in color, scholar Michael Auping notes: “Stella’s use of eye-popping colors and commonly available house paint in once-fashionable designer hues formed another bridge between contemporary movements, in this case between the industrial aesthetic of Minimalism and the new color vibrancy of Pop Art… While Warhol’s own colors often range from dazzling to melancholic, Stella’s approach is more like that of a mad color scientist, but with an academic pedigree.” (Michael Auping in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella: A Retrospective, p. 24) In Agadir I, an overall pattern of horizontal purple and yellow bands is bisected by a tectonic diagonal axis, across which each band is mirrored by its opposite. Without deviating from the crisp regularity and rigid symmetry of his earlier works, this striking division of pictorial space conjures an electric sense of optical tension, distorting the flatness of the support to send the vibrant bands careening beyond the confines of the picture frame. For the viewer who encounters Agadir I, an afterimage remains emblazoned upon one’s retina for minutes after, filtering the surrounding world through a prismatic lens of shimmering bands. Reflecting upon the particular potency of color in Stella’s paintings of the early 1960s, Auping remarks, “His paintings of the early 1960s utilize the color surface plane as if it were a trampoline being pushed and bounced by divergent color changes, in a manner ranging from a general sizzle of color interaction to an almost sculptural presence.” (Ibid., pp. 23-24)
In his use of an exclusively square format for the Moroccan paintings, Stella places an unprecedented emphasis upon the importance of color as the foremost consideration of the composition. Eliminating the shaped canvases used in preceding series, which would have contended with color for the viewer’s attention, Stella focuses our attention solely upon the potent optical effects of unadulterated hue. Just as he had used the shape of his canvas as means of indicating artistic gesture, here, Stella similarly embraces color as vehicle for gestural force; as they travel across the square canvas, the searing bands of Agadir I acquire a potent physicality that challenges the inherent two-dimensionality of the picture plane itself. Auping describes, “This return to a traditional, pictorial (window-like) format allowed him to present intensely concentrated color experiences. Stella’s self-deprecating statement ‘I’m not a colorist’ refers to the fact that, for him, the function of color is not beauty, symbolism, or metaphor for its own sake. Within his abstractions, color is employed to manipulate our perception of space. He is arguably one of the most experimental colorists in postwar art, not only in his use of enamel and metallic paints, but of new fluorescent colors as well.” (Ibid., p. 23) In the kaleidoscopic matrix of the present work, Stella articulates expressive chromatic force within the familiar linear vernacular of Minimalism, allowing the sumptuous brilliance of the former to be conjured and dramatized against the stark rationality of the latter; forging a radiant synergy between the two, Agadir I stands as a lasting testament to Frank Stella’s unprecedented mastery of color as a means to transform, divert, and manipulate the perception of space within the Contemporary painterly idiom.
Acquired from Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in the year following its execution, the present work has been held in the esteemed Robert A. Rowan collection for over fifty years. A founding trustee, President, and driving force behind the Pasadena Art Museum, as well as a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Rowan built a collection at once singularly discerning and daringly visionary. Possessing an unerring intellect, adventurous eye, and steadfast determination to acquire works ahead of their time, Rowan collected artists in-depth, demonstrating a sustained commitment to exploring various modes of an artist's sensibility: the notable selection of paintings by Frank Stella that he acquired included Stella's monumental 1959 black painting Tomlinson Court Park, which set a 25-year long auction record for the artist in 1989. The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period of impassioned collecting for Rowan, during which he acquired numerous Contemporary Art masterworks through his close relationships with such notable dealers as Sidney Janis, Paul Kantor, Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli, and Ferus Gallery's Irving Blum - it was then that major works like Roy Lichtenstein's Engagement Ring (1963) and Temple of Apollo (1965), Andy Warhol's Lavender Disaster (1964) and Pink Race Riot (1963), and Willem de Kooning's Lily Pond (1959) entered the collection. Rowan's collecting, however, gained momentum in the mid-1960s: this was a period of exuberant artistic innovation that drove Rowan's interest in the art of the present. It was in 1965 that Rowan acquired his first paintings by Stella - the present work from Ferus and another from Leo Castelli - marking a turning point in the development of his collection toward a fascination with the then-emerging brand of purely formal post-painterly abstraction. The collection is one that reflected the evolution of painting in postwar America, thrillingly merging the parallel burgeoning East and West Coast art scenes of the era. Alongside his significant holdings of Pop Art and the art of Southern California, Rowan assembled a significant collection of color-field painting, including masterworks by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella. As sophisticated, surefooted, and delightfully audacious as Rowan was in his collecting, Frank Stella's Agadir I serves as emphatic testament to the authentic originality and dazzling brilliance of the artist's prodigious painterly output.
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