Vibrant and refined, Frank Stella’s Sinjerli III utilizes innovative organizational systems to unify form and color, making abstraction universally legible. Executed in 1967, the present work belongs to Stella’s Protractor series, which he began that year and which would dominate his artistic production until 1970. The series was inspired by a trip to Iran, and the circular urban plans of the ancient cities he visited. Each work in the series is titled after one of these ancient cities, combining the implied exoticism of semi-mythic ancient capitals with the quotidian protractor, creating a form that is at once familiar and new.
In Sinjerli III, the shape of the canvas dictates the composition. Each work in the Protractor series is classified based on the combination of arcs and line segments that make up the shape of its canvas. Sinjerli III is one of the earliest works in the series and captures Stella’s negotiation of the linear and curvilinear shaped canvas in his body of work. Within the series, there are three types denoted by the numerals which succeed the title of the work, with III indicating that the colors in the work should be arrayed in a “fan.” In the present work, this manifests in a system of framing units, each roughly inhabiting a quadrant of the surface. The quadrants are home to discrete spectra, each expanding out in linear rays from an implied vanishing point in the center of the composition.
Just as the shape of the canvas is dictated by its place in a regimented series, the colors that occupy each quadrant in the work also imply a logic or system in their placement and juxtaposition. Each color is applied with a technical flatness, erasing evidence of the hand, and in the words of Stella, keeping “the paint as good as it was in the can” (Frank Stella in Sidney Guberman, Frank Stella: An Illustrated Biography, New York 1995, p. 62). Acting as a bridge between the earlier Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s and the Minimalists of the 1960s, Stella uses color contrasts as a proxy for gesture, employing unexpected combinations as conduits for his painterly energy and point of view. In the present work, the freneticism of a fluorescent yellow ray is subdued by the haziness of a pastel blush, and an effervescent red is cooled by successive bands of pinks and grays, creating a sense of force and movement that ebbs and flows throughout the canvas.
Despite the rubrics which dictate the composition of Sinjerli III, the work defies the standard limits of abstraction, forming an arsenal of visual idioms that are widely accessible. Stella takes the geometry of Malevich and standardizes it, making it deeply comprehensible. Articulating his desire for the process by which his paintings should be understood, Stella stated that his works should be “direct—right to your eye, something that you didn’t have to look around—you got the whole thing right away” (ibid, p. 38). To achieve this aim, in Sinjerli III Stella engages with notions of the decorative and integrated those motifs into the discourse surrounding abstraction. He emphasizes what at first glance could appear as decorative could also be “strongly involved with pictorial problems and pictorial concerns that they’re not conventionally decorative in any way” (Frank Stella as quoted in Exh. Cat., Museum of Modern Art, Frank Stella, New York 1970, p. 149). Stella succeeded at this goal, and his series of Protractor paintings became as well-known and commercially sought after as any of Warhol’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe or Coca-Cola bottles. The Protractors were so ubiquitous in various printed matter and printed reproductions that master Conceptual painter John Baldessari used the likeness of one of Stella’s Protractor paintings for his own searingly intelligent and witty silkscreen version, adding the text “A 1968 PAINTING.” Baldessari’s appropriated painting is iconic of his own perennial questioning and radical re-evaluation of accepted notions of authorship, originality and aesthetic judgment, nearly mocking the success of Stella’s Protractors altogether. Indeed, of the Protractors Baldessari has said “[They] were…the essence of the clean, well-made, and broadly understood abstract painting. It was the perfect example of popular abstraction” (John Baldessari in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Frank Stella: A Retrospective, New York 2015, p. 28).
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