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Frank Stella’s sons are selling the American artist’s very first Black Painting, with an asking price of $45m, at Art Basel in Miami Beach this week. Painted in 1958 when Stella was just 22 years old, it is the first time thatDelta has come to the market and, if it achieves that price, will make it one of the most expensive works by Stella to have ever been sold. His auction record, also for a Black Painting, stands at $28m.
“Delta has been consigned directly by the family, it’s a gift to Frank’s two sons,” says Dennis Yares, who runs the New York, Los Angeles and Santa Fe gallery Yares Art, which is exhibiting the canvas at the fair. It is not clear exactly what the motivation is for selling the work now; media reports from 2021 hinted at a rift between Frank Stella and his son Patrick over their discordant political allegiances.
Yares Art, meanwhile, first started working directly with Stella in 2021, hosting two shows in New York and facilitating the installation of Stella’s sculpture, Jasper’s Split Star (2017), in the public plaza at 7 World Trade Center. Yares says the “maturation” of the relationship between the 87-year-old artist and the gallery, coupled with the forthcoming 60th anniversary of Yares Art, led to the sale. He adds: “This was, in essence, a great favour for the family to agree for us to show the painting publicly at the fair. It was just kismet.” Stella is also represented by other galleries showing at the fair, including Lévy Gorvy Dayan, Marianne Boesky and Sprüth Magers.
Stella began creating his Black Paintings when he moved to New York in 1958, marking a radical departure for non-figurative painting and affecting the development of Colour Field painting, Minimalism and arguably even Pop art. “It was the most groundbreaking body of work that changed the history of art,” says the New York art adviser Wendy Cromwell.
As Yares points out, there are only 24 Black Paintings in existence and the majority are held in museum collections. Delta comes with impeccable provenance. It was loaned to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC from 2004 to 2011 and has been shown intermittently since, most notably at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Stella retrospective in 2015. The painting was last shown in 2017-18, at the NSU Art Museum in nearby Fort Lauderdale.
Cromwell adds that Stella’s market has historically been undervalued, though she thinks that the $45m price tag “doesn’t sound expensive for something so rare and desirable”. As with the best of the best, “cream rises to the top”, she adds. On the private market, Stella’s Black Paintings have been known to sell for $35m-$45m.
The big question, however, is whether Art Basel in Miami Beach is the right place to achieve that kind of price. “You don’t usually see these kinds of unicorns here,” Cromwell says. “At auction you might see the top five collectors who chase these pictures, but not in Miami. It’s an unusual choice but sometimes these things are just about personal preferences and relationships.”