Frank Stella, born May 12, 1936, has had a diversely colorful career. It is not possible to look at the overall arc of Stella’s work and regard him as less than a thinking artist. His student work reflects an interest in Abstract Expressionism, and a conviction that abstraction was an established fact.
The market does not always favor such early and uncharacteristic Stella examples, however. The 1956 oil on burlap with collaged fabric elements sold at Bonham’s New York for $20,000 in November 2013, was the lowest price achieved at auction for any Stella painting created before 1959.
The highest price for a pre-59 Stella was reached in May of 2007 at Sotheby’s New York when an untitled work sold for $360,000. This was not much higher than the $310,000 paid at auction back in 1994 for Green Gate, perhaps indicating that collectors, having decided on a set price for Stella’s early work, stuck with it.
In 1959, after his move to New York, Stella underwent his “aha” moment with the first of his “Black Paintings”. This series of 23 very large monochromes is made up of precisely spaced stripes in various sequences, precisely rendered in commercial grade black paint. The paintings caught the eye of Leo Castelli, who invited the 23-year-old artist to join his gallery.
Two examples from this first major series have achieved the second and third highest prices for Stella works at auction: Tomlinson Court Park sold in November of 1989 at Sotheby’s New York for $5,060,000, and Bethlehem’s Hospital sold at Christie’s New York in May of 2003 for $4,375,500. His next series, created in the 1960’s, is exemplified by his concentric square paintings, and also fared well at auction.
Stella may have helped lead the way from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism, but few followed him into the Baroque creations of his later years: those brightly-hued shaped canvases of increasing scale and complexity that interacted with architecture. What is both interesting and strange is that very few of these later works have appeared at auction, meaning that either they have been sold primarily on the secondary private market, or that collectors are holding them in hope their market will rise in the future.
Tepe gawra, a 2002 mixed media on cast aluminum measuring 74 x 74 inches, was offered in September of 2011 at Sotheby’s New York but was bought in below the $200,000 – 300,000 estimate. Another example, K.140, a small cast aluminum and stainless steel tubing piece from 2007, did sell at Gary Nader in December of 2011 but achieved only $126,500.
So now we have an example of an artist whose early work outstrips the price of his late works. The divisions in the work of all four artists cited in this series are reasonably clear-cut. But the trajectories of their markets are not, proving that we may never be too certain that an artist’s “mature” period is his most sought after by the collector or considered most by the critic. In recent years, Stella's highest-selling works have almost exclusively been paintings from the 1960s.