Frank Stella’s Pratfall from 1974 is one of only two monumental black, white, and grey compositions from Stella’s series of Diderot paintings, among the largest format examples of the artist’s beloved Concentric Squares. Utterly enveloping in scale and reverberating with optical rhythm, Pratfall marks the culmination of the Concentric Square paintings initiated by Stella in 1962. The painting is sophisticated in its palette and utterly vertiginous in effect—truly a phenomenal testament to Stella’s mastery over his medium. The painting’s significance is further attested to by its prominent inclusion in the recent retrospective of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where Pratfall was in fact the very first work seen upon the entrance to the exhibition.
Heralding a renewed vigor and authority, Stella’s Concentric Squares of the mid-1970s were executed on a grander scale than ever before, imparting a newfound heroism and epic complexity. Expanding the size of the canvas while retaining the basic units of proportion and band-width enhanced not only the impression of monumental proportions, but allowed for more subdivided, intricate relations of color than in the earlier and smaller scale pictures. In this larger format, Stella could explore a greater degree of variation within the same palette, as on commanding display with Pratfall. Moreover, the exaggerated format of the paintings gave them an entirely new relationship to the viewer’s body, transforming them into not just optical experiences but powerfully physical entities. The present work’s title foregrounds the inevitably corporeal response demanded of Stella’s Concentric Squares, invoking the dizzying effect caused by the image and its resounding power to knock a spectator off-balance. As the eye is pulled in and pushed outward from the composition, the painting impels a whirling sensation of motion that lends it its unique optical voltage.
After a period of severe experimentation with shaped canvases and unexpected sculptural compositions, predominantly focusing on the Polish Village series, the return to the Concentric Squares in the mid-1970s re-invested Stella 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.
Stunningly beautiful in both its conceptual daring and searing sharpness of execution, Pratfall puts Stella’s unwavering control 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. 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. The absence of color in the grayscale Pratfall is emblematic of this approach, exemplifying Stella’s desire to simplify and reduce color and form to its most essential clarity. Opposite to the improvisational drama of Abstract Expressionism 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 heroism out of the painting.
Standing before Pratfall the viewer is confronted with a magnificent expanse that in its extraordinary geometry and subtle tonal variation at once pushes and pulls, withdraws and advances, both into our space and into a recessional space of its very own. Referencing the Enlightenment precedent of Denis Diderot, the works from this series 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.
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