Utterly enveloping in scale and pulsating with chromatic brilliance, Promenade du Sceptique (The Skeptic’s Walk) is a masterpiece of Frank Stella’s 1970s output. Marking the culmination of the Concentric Square paintings initiated in 1962, the present work counts among the largest and most ambitious from this iconic series that was identified as an aesthetic touchstone for Stella by famed curator William Rubin in his catalogue essay for the Museum of Modern Art's 1987 exhibition of the artist's work from 1970 to 1984. Stella explored more three dimensional forms and spatial constructs in this prolific period, and while his innovations changed markedly in external appearance, they were all at heart extensions and elaborations of the basic aesthetic premise of the Black Paintings of the 1950s - the painting as a non-representational object. Stella expressed a new sense of liberation and exuberance in this period, and Rubin proposed that the reprisal of the Concentric Square format was an ideal forum for the contemplation of the "extravagant" nature of the recent work within the context of the "controlled and rational character that inheres in the Concentric Squares." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella 1970-1987, 1987, p. 48)
Executed in 1974, these Concentric Square paintings possess canvas dimensions of 135 by 135 inches (or 135 by 284 inches for the double squared works), and make plain their emphatic scale and heightened sense of an aesthetically physical and holistic experience. Indeed, the extension of the Concentric Squares of this year pronounced their unceasing relevance for Frank Stella as a source of abiding exploration and artistic discovery: “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.” (the artist cited in Ibid., p. 43) Articulated with greater chromatic variance and in a grand proportion heretofore unseen in Stella’s work, Promenade du Sceptique resonates with a colossal and powerful, yet pictorially controlled, visual drama. Indeed, this painting and James Rosenquist's F-111 of 1964 (currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) hung in the lobby of Ohio's tallest building, the Key Tower in Cleveland that opened in 1992, which was designed by architect Cesar Pelli to specifically showcase these two monumental masterpieces.
Frank Stella carved out a career in opposition to the gestural abandon of Abstract Expressionism, garnering the attention of the New York art scene with his innovatively controlled espousal of diagrammatic line, regulated pattern, and chromatic standardization. Following the promethean success of his Black Paintings in 1958, the artist soon introduced color into his work with the series of Benjamin Moore Paintings in 1961, and the Concentric Squares and Mitered Mazes of 1962-63. Initially, Stella chose to employ only the six primary and secondary colors readily available in commercial cans of house paint. The subsequent eradication of chromatic decision thus paralleled the given nature of his chosen rectilinear format and provided a set of rules within which any sense of illusionistic space or impassioned gesture was denied; this in turn allowed for an undisturbed and focused exploration of the elemental properties of form, color, and line. As redolent in the bold progression of primary and secondary color away from the center and out towards the perimeter of the present work, Stella’s concentric composition seems to simultaneously inhale and exhale through the juxtaposition of color and line alone.
Promenade du Sceptique and its counterparts present a systematic abstraction of hues taken from the same color wheel to deliver the same regulation of internal stripes as the 1960s pictures. However, with the new availability of larger sized canvases on the market, Stella wanted to elaborate how his stripe configurations would behave on supports of such imposing proportions. Applying an identical constancy of geometric patternation, so that the stripes remained the same size regardless of the new oversized supports, called for a congruent increase in the number of color juxtapositions. Indeed, expanding the size of the canvas while retaining the basic units of proportion and band-width enhanced not only the impression of monumentality, but allowed for more subdivided and complex relations of color than in the earlier, smaller works. On this significant scale, Stella could explore a greater degree of variation within the same color spectrum. As in the present work, an epic schema of concentric boxes provides an imposing and unprecedented schema of strident coloration. Standing before Promenade du Sceptique the viewer is confronted with a resplendent expanse that in its extraordinary chromatic geometry at once pushes and pulls, withdraws and advances, both into our space and into a recessional space of its very own. Moreover, referencing the Enlightenment precedent of Denis Diderot, these works posit a highly conceptual and illuminating dialogue that not only extends the scope of Stella's breakthrough 1960s oeuvre but also scrutinizes the influential body of art criticism that accelerated his ascent to artistic renown.
In recognition that new departures are often challenging to the public appreciation and understanding of an artist's work, Promenade du Sceptique belongs to a subset of the Concentric Squares known as the Diderot Paintings, and are each named after written works by the eighteenth-century French philosopher and figure of the Enlightenment, Denis Diderot. Following the period of novel investigation into polygonal volume and form in the early 1970s, Stella returned to his Concentric Squares with these works in order to conjure what he saw as “the notion of the critic.” (the artist cited in Ibid., pp. 43-48) Whether the series was intended as a critique of his own work or as a wider comment on the sphere of contemporaneous American art criticism makes for intriguing discussion. In his text for Stella’s 1987 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, curator William Rubin proposed a connection between the artist’s titular appropriation of Diderot and the art historian and critic Michael Fried, who incidentally was writing a book centered on the French philosopher’s early art criticism at the time. Significantly for Stella, Fried’s influential articles for Artforum, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings” (November 1966) and “Art and Objecthood” (June 1967), had played an invaluable role in providing a body of critical literature surrounding the artist during the 1960s. By thus invoking the presence of Fried via Diderot, via the Concentric Squares, Stella harks back to the critical success of his 1960s production and by reprising his earlier corpus applied a critical yardstick against his contemporaneous yet aesthetically divergent new work; namely the Polish Village series that had deviated from the flatness and linear stricture of his breakthrough paintings. Expanding on this premise, art historian Gregor Stemmrich has posited that Stella’s linking of his work to Diderot telescopes the “claim to Enlightenment held up by American criticism”, particularly within the writing of Clement Greenberg as well as that of Fried. As Stemmrich explained: “Stella’s succinct hint that the titles would evoke ‘the notion of the critic’ itself evoked the notion that there were flaws and inconsistencies in the supposed fundamentals upon which the theoretically ambitious American art criticism based its judgments... .” (Gregor Stemmrich, “Frank Stella: What Painting Wants” in Exh. Cat., Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Frank Stella: The Retrospective Works 1958-2012, 2012, p. 55) Significantly, Diderot is widely credited for igniting the very first phase in the history of art criticism. The naming of these paintings after the many novels published by Diderot – as in the present work which refers to the controversial The Skeptic’s Walk (the manuscript for which remained confiscated until it was finally published long after his death in 1830) – thus frames Stella’s practice within the primal scene of art criticism whilst simultaneously referring back to his 1960s Concentric Squares, a body of work that helped furnish the artist’s rise to early critical acclaim.
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