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Tracking Frank Stella: An Empirical Evaluation of Art-Historical Issues in an Eye-Movement and Questionnaire Study

In: Art & Perception
Authors:
Stefanie De WinterArt History Research Unit, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Blijde-Inkomststraat 21 − bus 3313, 3000 Leuven, Belgium
Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, Department of Brain and Cognition, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Tiensestraat 102, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

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Johan WagemansLaboratory of Experimental Psychology, Department of Brain and Cognition, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Tiensestraat 102, 3000 Leuven, Belgium

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Abstract

An eye-tracking and questionnaire study was set up in collaboration with the Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, The Netherlands) to investigate the perception and appreciation of three Frank Stella paintings from the 60s (Tuxedo Park and Effingham I from the collection of the museum and a hand-painted replica of Hiraqla Variation II). Effingham and Hiraqla were shown next to a printed copy without fluorescent colors, for a direct comparison between the two versions. The main purpose of the study was to assess whether the works were experienced according to Stella’s prescriptions as defined in his Modernist ‘logic’: all-overness, flatness, instantaneousness and self-referentiality. We found that the perception of Tuxedo resulted in a well-structured, coherent heatmap, while a more or less even distribution of fixations over the surface was found in the case of Effingham and Hiraqla (and their copies), which indicates that Stella’s target of all-overness was achieved better in the last two works. Although Stella claimed to have created “flat and frontal” paintings, depth was experienced, especially in Tuxedo and the Hiraqla replica. In the latter, this was mainly caused by the protruding fluorescent colors. Also, in this work more fixations were found in fluorescent-colored areas when corrected for area size. No such effect was found in the original Effingham painting. Most participants found only Effingham to be instantaneously capturable. In the case of Tuxedo, the specific material qualities, like alkyd and open canvas, were rarely recognized, which undermines Stella’s aim for self-referentiality. Participants noticed the fluorescent effect in the Hiraqla replica, but they did not mention other material qualities. A reverse effect was found for Effingham.

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