Gray Scramble, 1968, painted just two years before the artist's major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a bold example of Stella's massive canvases that bridge the gap between the monumentality of Abstract Expressionism and the exactitude of Minimalism. Taking their name from a 1967 piece of choreography by Merce Cunningham, for which Stella designed both sets and costumes, the “Scramble” series returned to the rectilinear format of the artist’s earlier works, following a period of experimental shaped canvases typified by the “Protractor” and “Irregular Polygon” series of the 1960s. Drawing upon the optically rich color palettes of those series, combined with the rectangular composition of Stella’s “Black Paintings”, works like Gray Scramble are a synthesis and culmination of Stella’s two most lauded bodies of work.
Composed of two sets of concentric squares -one set snugly next to the other- on a single horizontal canvas, Gray Scramble approaches color in an orderly, almost mathematical manner. The left squares run the spectrum from white to deep purple starting at the center, while the right square gets lighter as one approaches its outer border. Alternating with lines of gray, these color sets push and pull at the viewer’s eye, while also referring to the progression of grayscale and Stella’s earlier “Black Paintings”. Striking chromatic opposites, the two squares are composed on the artist’s trademark three-inch stretcher, which mimics the thickness of each painted band.
The double-format of the present work gives the painting extraordinary optical dynamism and challenges established modes of perception; Stella's ingenious arrangement of color and line draws the eye to the center of the composition and creates a dueling sense of receding and projecting depth. Simultaneously, the regular schematic pattern exemplified by the uniform width of the bands, coupled with Stella's precise modulation of color and tonal values, collapse space into a single flattened plane.
Gray Scramble was previously part of the seminal collection of renowned art collector and architect Graham Gund, which quietly boats major works by many of the most preeminent artists of the 20th century, including Frank Stella’s monumental shaped canvas Madinat As-Salam 1, 1970. Recently, Mr. Gund donated 80 works to Kenyon college. Similar works to Gray Scramble can be found in museum collections around the world, including Gray Scrambled Double Square, 1964, in The Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Gran Cairo, 1962 in The Whitney Museum of American art in New York. The present work has been in the same family collection since 1991.