Emanating dynamic synergy between mathematical purity and optical convolution, Frank Stella’s Untitled is a remarkable example of the exhilarating visual energy present in his Mitered Maze series. Advancing the evolution of Stella’s increasingly complex geometric compositions, this series, begun in 1962, demonstrates Stella’s profound ability to expand on his initial premises through an iterative process. Deeply linked to Stella's Benjamin Moore and the Concentric Square paintings, also from the 1960s, the Mitered Maze series continues the flattened composition and dazzling chromatic energy of its predecessor, while simultaneously departing from it by creating an interruption in the antecedent’s crisp symmetry through the inaugural use of the explicitly delineated diagonal line at the corners of each field of paint.
While Stella’s earlier works featured outstanding flatness, the addition of the diagonal line segments introduced a unique spatial illusionism to Stella’s compositions. Radiating forth from the center of the canvas, the outstretching lines of an “X” seemingly extend to the corner of the canvas, designating the concentric bands within four distinct, mitered segments, except for one line that starts just left or right of the canvas’ corner. In the present work, one diagonal line starts just left of the upper right corner–a detail that is distinguished only when the color bands fail to meet in the painting’s epicenter. This disruption in the center of the canvas dramatically heightens the optical sensation of Stella’s signature rotational framework, drawing the viewer’s eye deep into the center point of the maze. Extraordinarily unique to the Mitered Maze series, this ingenious addition to the artist’s signature rotational framework creates a gyrating dynamism that constructs a sense of both receding and projecting depth. As the width of the delineated lines remain uniform throughout the composition of Untitled rather than tapering inwards towards the center, the composition neither expands outward nor contracts inward, articulating Stella’s interest in the relationship between the two-dimensional canvas and its three-dimensional support. Demonstrating his interest in this spatial tension, Stella remarked on the relationship of the viewer in the illusionistic Baroque image: “Rubens' painting is to remind us that we should see ourselves on a pedestal…because elevated on a pedestal we will surely be reminded of the space all around us–the space behind us, next to us, below us, and above us…which we have so often taken as being the only space available to us as viewers” (the artist in Exh. Cat., Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Frank Stella–The Retrospective: Works 1958-2012, 2012, p. 114). While at first glance Untitled seems to be constructed by a series of squares, the only consummate square is constructed by the edges of the canvas itself, drawing the viewer’s attention to the physicality and materialistic nature of the canvas.
Further activating the inaugural geometry, the vibrant, twisting, bold hues of the mitered segments in Untitled perpetuate the fundamental element of spatial recession and progression. Utilizing Benjamin Moore Alkyd house paint, first applied in the appropriately titled Benjamin Moore series, the Mitered Maze paintings feature vibrant segments of primary and secondary colors that were uncharacteristic of his earlier work. Unlike the glossy, vibrant commercial metallic paints Stella had previously used, the interior household paints were designed to have a matte finish and static surface–necessitating that the color pigments be neither projective nor visually absorbent. The tightness of the surface of Untitled, initially induced by the matte paint, is moreover intensified by the unpainted spaces between bands of colored segments that follow the shape of the square canvas, applying an identical constancy of geometric patternation. With almost no textural interference from the artist’s hand in the application of the paint, the painting lacks tonal variations in the bold hues of the concentric bands and the empty spaces of the diagonals have no traces of bleeds or minute gestures. With the tightly masked stripes, the eye moves more quickly across the canvas, carrying our gaze around and over the painting as the bands slip and slide. the ever-changing color dynamics, vacillating between the primary and secondary colors, further enhance the coiling geometry of the squares. The mitered segments that form triangles into the epicenter of the canvas are either primary or secondary colors–with the east and west triangles formed by electric yellow, cobalt blue, and coral red segments and the north and south triangular segments formed by green, Day-Glo orange, and rich violet. Meanwhile, the segments that assemble descending squares alternate between primary and secondary colors. Only the center of the canvas, where the diagonal lines fail to meet, is not consistent with the grouping forming the disruption being blue, green, and yellow.
A remarkable testament to Stella’s exploration of color optics and geometric patterns in the early part of his career, Untitled is a poignant visual puzzle that lures the eye into a well of vibrant color motion. In its simple geometry, the present work is an exemplary example of the artist’s success in creating a unified, flat image composed of distinct elements that concurrently produce an invigorating visual puzzle, challenging received assumptions of perception. As part of Stella’s iconic square paintings from the 1960s and 1970s, Untitled played a pivotal role in the development of Stella’s work. Characterized by a crisp regularity and rigid compositional order, the squares’ pictorial force came from their materiality and unique spatial presence, initiating Stella’s interest in volume and providing a departure point for his later venture into three-dimensional wall reliefs.
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