After graduation Stella moved to New York with the intention of staying there to paint for the summer only. When he was not drafted into the army as he had expected, he took up painting seriously. After two essentially accidental, transitional paintings, for the next 16 months he pencilled lines on raw canvases, partially filling in the open spaces with black house-paint. The process left stripes that appeared to have uncertain parameters between the pencilled lines. They became known as The Black Paintings, and four were first shown in 16 Americans (1959–60) at the Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition from which the museum purchased The Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959; New York, MOMA).

From that time Stella consistently developed his increasingly complex variations on selected themes in a highly organized, cyclical manner that for many years allowed little room for spontaneity. In 1960 he held his first one-man show in New York, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, exhibiting striped canvases called the Aluminum Paintings that extended the explorations of The Black Paintings. In works such as Newstead Abbey (1960; Amsterdam, Stedel. Mus.) he introduced notched edges at the perimeters of the canvas which corresponded to the geometric repetitions of the stripe patterns. The Copper Paintings of 1960–61 included more elaborately shaped canvases, which conformed to the increasingly eccentric stripe configurations, for example Telluride (1960–61; priv. col., see L. Rubin, p. 123).

In this period Stella denied any illusion of space or depth and asserted the flatness and object-quality of the canvas itself. He later indicated that his intention in these works was not to reject completely the lush brushwork of Abstract Expressionism, as often suggested, but rather to insist on the development of an overall surface through negating any illusionism that visible brushstrokes or advancing and receding colours might imply. In the Benjamin Moore Paintings (1961), such as Island No. 10 (1961; Franklin, MI, S. and M. Forbes priv. col., see L. Rubin, p. 137) the bands or stripes became more formalized and the edges more precise. Colour was introduced as an arbitrary element: each of the canvases was painted in a single primary or secondary colour of a brand of commercial house-paint, to which the title of the series paid tribute, applied to the surface in one of six distinctive patterns. With such works Stella was already paving the way for Minimalism at the moment that Pop art was beginning to emerge. Two more series were painted, including a set of six canvases for Andy Warhol in 1962 (305×305 mm; now in New York, Brooklyn Mus.).

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