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Frank Stella, Black Series I, 1967

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Hollis Frampton, The Secret World of Frank Stella [painting Getty Tomb, unpublished print], 1958–1962, printed 1991, gelatin silver print, Addison Gallery of Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (gift of Marion Faller, Addison Art Drive, 1991)

The Black Series I prints closely relate to large, monochromatic canvases known as the Black Paintings, which Frank Stella (American, born 1936) completed between 1958 and 1960. Each lithograph features a pattern of rectilinear stripes of uniform width printed in metallic black ink on buff-tinted paper. In the Black Paintings, the stripes extend to the edge of the canvas support; in the prints, Stella positioned the striped form in the lower left quadrant of the sheet. This format visually unifies the series, and subtly shifts focus from the symmetrical patterning to the asymmetrical relationship between striped field and rectangular paper.

In 1964, Stella famously declared of his paintings: “What you see is what you see.” By championing purely formal concerns, he was ostensibly reacting against the rhetoric of subjectivity and romanticism surrounding abstract expressionism. But the shimmer of the metallic ink in the Black Series prints, the subtle unevenness of their stripes (drafted freehand on the lithographic plate), and the spatial ambiguity of the patterning produces an optical ambiguity that gives rise, as Stella conceded, “to emotional ambiguities.” The inky blackness inflects an eerie mood that is underscored by the prints’ evocative titles (he called them “downbeat”), which include references to Nazi slogans, Brooklyn slum neighborhoods, and New York nightclubs.

"All I want anyone to get out of my [works] and all I ever get out of them is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion. What you see is what you see." –Frank Stella, 1964

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Getty Tomb from Black Series I, as displayed in its album.

Black Series I was conceived as the initial stage of an ambitious project. Stella planned to make print series related to all his stripe paintings, but the project was never fully realized. He stopped after making nine lithographic series—five created at Gemini and four at other print studios. Albums, with the name of the artist, publisher, and series embossed on the spine, were produced for each of the Gemini series. When viewed sequentially in the binders, the shift from one page to the next highlights the uniformity and modularity as well as the repetitions, differences, and internal formal relationships between the individual prints.

View the slideshow below for images of Stella working on his Black Series at Gemini.

Link to Frank Stella's Elson lecture, 1993

Banner image: Detail, Frank Stella, Bethlehem's Hospital (detail), 1967, lithograph, Gift of Benjamin B. Smith, 1985. © 2011 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist