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.
In each half of The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, stripes outline stripes in an inverted U-shape, a regular, self-generating pattern. Filling the canvas according to a methodical program, Stella suggests an idea of the artist as laborer or worker. (He also uses commercial paint—black enamel—and a house-painter's brush.) The systematic quality of Stella's Black Paintings decisively departed from the ideas of inspired action associated with Abstract Expressionism, the art of the preceding generation, and anticipated the machine-made Minimal art of the 1960s. But many of them, like this one, are subtly personal: Stella worked freehand, and irregularities in the lines of the stripes reveal the slight waverings of his brush. His enamel, too, suggests a bow to the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who had also used that paint. Stella's use of stripes was motivated by the work of Jasper Johns, particularly Johns's paintings of flags. "The thing that struck me most," Stella has said, "was the way he stuck to the motif . . . the idea of stripes—rhythm and interval—the idea of repetition." But Stella went farther than Johns in "sticking to the motif," removing the flag and leaving only the stripes. "My painting," he said, "is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. . . . What you see is what you see."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 233.