Instantaneous Art? Investigating Frank Stella’s Moroccan Paintings with a Short-Exposure Experiment

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  • 1 Art History Research Unit and Lieven Gevaert Centre, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium
  • 2 Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, Department of Brain and Cognition, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium

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In his search to create ‘instantaneously capturable’ paintings, Frank Stella started to use Day-Glo alkyd paints as a vehicle to communicate his simple, striped designs. Up till now, art criticism has neglected the visual impact of these fluorescent colours on this concept of ‘instantaneous art’. By presenting participants with Stella’s designs (fluorescent and conventional variants) for short presentation times (8 to 12 ms), we aimed to find out whether fluorescent colour combinations are seen faster (i.e., yield better performance in identifying the specific design) than their conventional counterparts. In general, participants were very good in identifying the correct design among distractors, which means that the pattern and colour combinations based on Stella’s work do seem to be ‘instantaneously capturable’. However, Stella’s formula for ‘instantaneous’ paintings is not identical for the different combinations. When exploring fluorescence in combination with other aspects of the design (colour and pattern), we found two effects that seemed to predict performance. First, performance seemed to depend on specific design patterns. Second, fluorescence seemed to interact with specific colour combinations in predicting performance. The red/yellow designs yielded better performance for the fluorescent variants, while the opposite was found for the green/orange designs. Contrast differences in luminance between the two colours of each colour combination might explain part of the results. On the other hand, the effect of fluorescent colours might have been watered down by the confusion between the hand-printed fluorescent colours and the computer display used for the identification task, which only showed conventional colours.

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