Stunning in its prismatic gradations, conceptual daring, and searing sharpness of execution, Scramble: Descending Green Values/Descending Spectrum celebrates Stella's unwavering control of brush and command of color. Alternating sequences of color culminate in a tantalizing optical vortex that seems to radiate outward and then contract back inward, endowing the stark rationality of Minimalism with dazzling kaleidoscopic chromatic energy. Concentric bands of verdant green hues, progressively paler in color as they move inward, are offset by a secondary palette of deep indigo, royal blue, luminescent golden yellow, warm orange, and culminate in a fiery crimson red center. While de-emphasizing the painterly gesture archetypal of Abstract Expressionist painting in favor of Minimalist abstraction dictated by the strict, predetermined format of the concentric square template, the edges of each line waver and bleed color ever so slightly, revealing the hand-painted nature of Stella's ruled lines. With the Concentric Square paintings, Stella found a pattern whose direct simplicity and absolute clarity created limitless opportunities for experimentation with color and line. The sheer literalism of this predetermined template allowed him to focus on the material properties of the picture plane itself and the elemental brilliance of pure color.
Stella graduated from Princeton University in 1958, where he had studied under William Seitz, the influential Museum of Modern Art curator who also wrote the earliest major text on Abstract Expressionism. Arriving in New York City immediately thereafter, Stella's early years as a young artist were greatly influenced by his formal academic education, the stimulating artistic environment of New York City, and his prior experiences working as a painter painting houses and boats. It was during these early years living as an artist in New York between 1961 and 1962 that Stella first embarked upon his Concentric Square paintings, using readily available Benjamin Moore paints and housepainter's tools to create these compositions. Abandoning the impassioned, improvisational immediacy of Abstract Expressionism, Stella instead acknowledges and embraces the flatness of the canvas and revels in a level of standardization and calculated precision that recalled his roots as a house-painter. Yet the influence of his Abstract Expressionist forbearers is undeniable; Stella commented: “I was very taken with Abstract Expressionism, largely because of the obvious physical elements, particularly the size of the paintings and the wholeness of the gesture. I had always liked house painting anyway, and the idea that they were using larger brushes… seemed to be a nice way of working…” (The artist in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella 1970-1987, 1987, p. 9). It was during this critical first year in New York City that Stella saw Jasper Johns's paintings at his first solo exhibition, and the explicit directness and ‘objectness’ of Johns’s pictures, in addition to his strict adherence to the pre-ordained format of the subjects he chose—Numbers, Targets, and Flags—present a clear link to Stella’s reverence for the flat pictorial field and stressing of the painterly surface. Just as Johns’s Flag remains a flag rather than an image of a flag, Stella’s Scramble: Descending Green Values/Descending Spectrum presents paint on canvas: a frank and brutally factual representation of its own medium and making.
The 1970s were a crucial decade in Stella's artistic career beginning in 1970 when, at the age of 34, Stella had his first full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and became the youngest artist ever to receive this prestigious honor. After spending much of the late 1960s and early 1970s working with shaped canvases and creating unexpected sculptural compositions, Stella returned back to his iconic Concentric Squares in the mid-1970s. Speaking to the import of these paintings, Stella stated, “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 in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 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 Scramble: Descending Green Values/Descending Spectrum.
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