Empress of India (1965) by Frank Stella. As reproduced in our new book

Understanding Stella: the Notched-V series

Here's how the artist broke up his working practices, imposed new restrictions and found new sources of creativity

Nobody corners quite like Frank Stella. While other artists settle quite comfortably into reliable, sometimes predictable creative practices, the 81-year-old American abstract painter has consistently switched styles since first finding fame in the late 1950s, in an ongoing set of discrete series.  

One of the most marked of those switches came with Stella's Notched V series, a set of coloured, geometric works, created from arrangements of 'v' shaped canvases. The lines on the works call to mind Stella's earlier, archetypical minimalist pieces, the Black Paintings of the late 1950s. However, these works aren't monochrome, but are, instead quite colourful. In this respect, they're a little like his Benjamin Moore paintings; created after the Black Paintings, from commercially available house paints, on uniformly square canvases.

However, the distinguishing characteristic of the Notched V series is, of course, the shape of the canvas itself. A little like a road chevron or an arrowhead, Stella's shaped canvases indicated a direction of travel, away from the barest, simplest restrictions, towards newer possibilities.

The works' titles, such as Star of Persia and Empress of India, suggest high, oriental ornamentation, even if both have other meanings; one is an ornamental onion, the other Queen Victoria's imperial appellation. 


Frank Stella
Frank Stella

It's easy to understand the rules Stella has imposed on himself to create these taut, abstract works, and easier still for gallery goers to follow the artist's progress at the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective show five years later, as our new book on Stella explains.

"When, in 1970 at the age of thirty-three, Stella became the youngest artist to receive a survey exhibition at MoMA, viewers could track for themselves the permutations and leaps within and among twelve years’ worth of striped and shaped paintings."

Yet, the true value of Stella's switches and series must lie in their creative potential. The artist understands the old jazz truism that restrictions and limitations actually lead to greater creativity.

Discussing his work with the art historian Andrianna Campbell in our new book, Stella says, "it’s really an issue about the perimeter, defining the perimeter of what you’re doing, finding the edges. And once you get into that, then you’ll think of things a little bit differently."


Frank Stella
Frank Stella

For more on the Notched V series and plenty more besides order a copy of our new Frank Stella book the latest in our own wonderful Contemporary Artist Series.