Frank Stella is one of a number of Minimalist artists who, in the late 1950s, reacted against Abstract Expressionism, the gestural style heralded by such painters as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock that had come to dominate the American avant-garde. Working toward the reduction of art to its essential qualities, Minimalists eliminated representational imagery in favor of predefined structures. Stella pursued the regularity and logic of grids and mazes, which afforded him an array of lines, shapes, and geometric patterns to build on.
Sketch Les Indes Galantes is one half of an intended pair of maze images; the other half was planned with six colors in a progression of values similar to that of the gray scale. However, once the artist saw how the colors lined up, he disliked the effect and abandoned the paired concept. The title of this work refers to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet, which Stella described as “a Frenchman’s idea of the new world.” The black-and-white palette alludes to the harpsichord keyboard, but also aims to capture the rhythmic, ordered sense of Rameau’s music.