Made by the American artist Frank Stella, Had Gadya: Back Cover is an abstract work on paper created using hand colouring as well as various printing methods. The hand colouring is distinctly visible in the three jagged blue-on-white forms in the lower part and left side of the composition, where Stella’s pen marks can clearly be seen. The bottom of the image is dominated by straight lines and rough edges and by shades of blue along with alternating black and white stripes, which collectively resemble a series of haphazardly arranged cones and cylinders shown from various perspectives. By contrast, the top third of the work is more open, presenting curved forms in black, orange and white. These include a crude black shape in the top left corner that resembles a flower and is overlaid with two yellow C-shaped lines. Stella has created a sense of depth by layering the shapes and spaces in the composition so that they overlap with each other and with the work’s pale blue border. This is a vibrant and energetic composition, which bustles with abstract forms that jostle for space and eschew order and symmetry.
Stella made Had Gadya: Back Cover in 1982–4, when he was working from a studio in the Van Tassell and Kearney Horse Auction Mart building in the East Village, New York. It belongs to a group of twelve prints entitled Had Gadya, all made during 1982–4, each of which incorporates hand colouring collaged with lithographic, linoleum block and silkscreen prints (see Waddington Custot Galleries 2014, p.5). Other prints in the series include The Butcher Came and Slew the Ox 1984 (Jewish Museum, New York) and Then Came Death and Took the Butcher 1984 (Waddington Graphics, London). The inclusion of the words ‘back cover’ in this work’s title indicates its status as the final print in Stella’s series.
The complexity of the images in this series relates to the form of the song ‘Had Gadya’ (‘The Only Kid’) that features in the Jewish festival Passover. It is sung at the end of the Passover Seder, the feast that signals the beginning of the festival. The song’s meaning is open to interpretation, but a common reading suggests it refers symbolically to the nations that have suppressed Israel throughout history. Each line in the song results from the preceding one and leads to the next: ‘A hungry cat ate up the goat, Then came a dog and bit the cat’, and so on. In 1919 the Russian artist El Lissitzky (1890–1941) made a series of gouaches inspired by the song and seeing them in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1981 prompted Stella to engage with both Lissitzky’s series and its theme. (An example from Lissitzky’s series is Cover, from Had Gadya Suite (Tale of a Goat) 1919, Jewish Museum, New York). As the art historian Carol Salus has observed: ‘Stella followed Lissitzky’s format of a series of prints, each of which depicts a single element of the text sequence. He transformed the characterizations of Lissitzky’s illustrations into his own abstract imagery and energies’ (Salus 2010, p.151). Had Gadya: Back Cover recalls the dynamism and the arresting colourfulness of Lissitzky’s original gouaches, such as in the quick, flowing lines in Lissitzky’s Cover. Lissitzky was Jewish and so the Had Gadya may have held personal meaning for him. While Stella was not Jewish, he was drawn to Jewish themes in his art: for instance, his Polish Village series of 1971–3 is a group of over one hundred works focusing on the destruction of Polish wooden synagogues by the Nazi Party.
Beyond its association with Lissitzky and the Jewish song, the print is also an exploration of how space can function in an abstract painting. The curator and critic Karen Wilkin discussed this facet of Stella’s work in 2011:
Stella’s projected space is not flat, yet like modernist flatness, it rejects the boxed-in, hollowed-out fictive distances of traditional painting … Stella’s space is an active, expressive part of the composition, as crucial to the communication – as opposed to representation – of emotion as any other element of ‘what you see’.
(Karen Wilkin in Ben Tufnel (ed.), Frank Stella: Connections, exhibition catalogue, Haunch of Venison, London 2011, p.15.)
The protrusion of the black flower-like form in the top left corner and the knife-shaped section of coloured blue paper at the left side of Had Gadya: Back Cover demonstrate Stella’s expressive use of space as these forms extend out of the boundaries of the print’s edge.
After the Had Gadya prints, Stella commenced work on Cones and Pillars, a series of metal reliefs utilising elements of form and composition that reflect the vibrancy and spatial disorder of his Had Gadya series (see, for instance, Salta nel mio Sacco 1984, Tate T07152). The art writer Clare Preston has also noted that the ‘wave shape’ seen in the dark blue area in Had Gadya: Back Cover and appearing in other prints in the series came for Stella to be associated with ‘the form of a whale, leading to his extensive and wide-ranging series named after Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick, including The Waves prints (1985–9)’ (Preston in Waddington Custot Galleries 2014, p.6).
William Rubin, Frank Stella 1970–1987, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1987, pp.131–42.
Carol Salus, ‘Frank Stella’s Polish Village Series and Related Works’, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, vol.28, no.2, Winter 2010, pp.139–56.
Frank Stella: Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya: The Unique Colour Variants, exhibition catalogue, Waddington Custot Galleries, London 2014, reproduced p.30.
Supported by Christie’s.
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