- Frank Stella
The title of Arundel Castle (small version) refers to the dilapidated housing tenement in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where Stella worked as a commercial painter upon moving to the city. While working as a house-painter, Stella began working with industrial enamel and tint colors in his studio. A dollar and forty cents could buy him a gallon of enamel paint, providing a wealth of material to use—material that was, in a sense, a kind of “found object” that further reinforced the gritty, nihilistic, and reductive rawness of his approach. Paralleling the industrial nature of his chosen medium, the hard-edged composition in the present work is equally mechanical. Stella composed Arundel Castle (small version) through mirror-image rectilinear patterns of black stripes that are organized along a horizontal bilateral axis. He used the thickness of the wooden stretcher bar to determine the width of each black stripe, thus creating an evenly symmetrical painting that is engendered by repetitions of its own structural skeleton. As seen in the present work, Stella’s commitment to depersonalization and objectivity epitomizes the spirit of his prophetic and compelling rebellion against the heavy-laden gesture and emotional machismo of Abstract Expressionism—a rebellion that fueled the tide of sixties Minimalism. Rosenblum wrote, “In place of the athletic calligraphy of de Kooning, Pollock or Kline, which seemed to record the singularity of momentary impulses and feelings, Stella’s paint application moved toward an almost impersonal regularity and evenness; instead of the chromatic and atmospheric refinements of Guston or Rothko, Stella chose the stark, ascetic contrast of unmodulated black paint stripes separated by the linear patterns of white canvas.” (Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella, Baltimore, 1971, p. 17) By this formulaic, reductive process, Stella most importantly experiments with the ontology of painting to reject its capacity as metaphor or mimesis. In denying the meaning of painting beyond its own palpable existence, Stella defies the idea of conventional painting as a ‘window’ and instead offers the idea of painting as a self-reflective mirror.
Although Stella’s handling of paint has been discussed in terms of a rote mechanical process, the small-scale format of the present work is particularly unique for the way in which it reveals nuanced brushwork and an intimate relationship between Stella's black stripes and raw canvas. In Arundel Castle (small version), Stella’s specific rectilinear design entrances the eye through ingenious visual interplay between solid and void. As Rosenblum observed, “these rectilinear relationships never produce discrete, self-sufficient shapes, but radiate beyond the canvas edges. Stella’s rectangles, whether expanding concentrically or segmented by the perimeter, imply infinite extendibility, the taut fragments of a potentially larger whole.” (Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella, Baltimore, 1971, p. 17) Iconically revered for their simple, hypnotic symmetry, Stella’s Black Paintings launched his immense artistic renown and symbolize the most critical revolution in the history of painting after 1960. By challenging the precedent set forth by Abstract Expressionism and provoking a reconsideration of the fundamental nature of painting, the Black Paintings mark the beginning of profound investigations in Minimalism and abstraction that challenged and indelibly altered the course of modern art. In 1970, Rosenblum wrote in his monograph Frank Stella, “One constant, at least, of this decade is the importance of the Black Paintings as epochal art history; for now, like then, they retain the watershed quality so apparent when they were first seen in 1959. Today too they have the character of a willful and successful manifesto that would wipe out the past of art and that would establish the foundation stones for a new kind of art.” (Robert Rosenblum in Sidney Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography, New York, 1995, p. 46)