The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II debuted at The Museum of Modern Art in December 1959, one of four works from Stella’s Black Paintings series (1958–60) included in curator Dorothy C. Miller’s landmark exhibition Sixteen Americans. Miller invited the young artist to participate in the show after visiting his studio that summer. At the time, Stella had already produced the first version of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor; he made this second iteration expressly for the occasion, varying the composition slightly (as he did with two other paintings in the series). Working freehand, he applied enamel paint directly onto the canvas to create two seemingly identical sets of black stripes, each the width of the housepainters’ brush used to produce it, interspersed with lines of unpainted canvas. The picture’s two-dimensionality is emphasized by the symmetrical composition, a device Stella used in all his Black Paintings to subvert spatial illusion.
The Black Paintings reflect Stella’s desire to present the viewer with an immediate visual impact, devoid of references to anything outside the work itself. As his friend and fellow artist Carl Andre wrote of the series in the catalogue accompanying the 1959 MoMA show, “Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting. . . . His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas. These paths lead only into painting.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
This painting consists of two identical vertical sets of concentric, inverted U-shapes. Each half contains twelve stripes of black enamel paint that seem to radiate from the single vertical unpainted line at their center. With this "regulated pattern," Stella explained, he forced "illusionistic space out of the painting at a constant rate." Working freehand, he applied the commercial black enamel paint with a housepainter's brush; slight irregularities are visible. Stella made this painting for MoMA's exhibition Sixteen Americans in 1959, at which time the Museum purchased it.
Gallery label from 2011.
Frank Stella used commercial black enamel paint and a house painter’s brush to make The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II. The thick black bands are the same width as the paintbrush he used. The thin white lines are not painted; they are gaps between the black bands in which the raw canvas is visible. Stella painted the black bands parallel to each other, and to the canvas’s edges, rejecting expressive brushstrokes in favor of an overall structure that recognized the canvas as both a flat surface and a three-dimensional object.
Stella identified his materials and process with those of a factory laborer. About his manner of painting, Stella famously said, “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there… What you see is what you see.” Instead of painting something recognizable, Stella’s painting is about the act of painting, and its result.