“My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object … All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion … What you see is what you see.”
A colorfully diverse and brilliant composition of flowing semicircular and curvilinear motifs, Protractor Variation, painted in 1968, is a spectacular example of Frank Stella’s Minimalist approach to abstraction, as well as his career-long interest in exploring geometric structures and the properties of his mediums. Skillfully painted in pastel hues of a similar brightness, Protractor Variation is a painting from Stella’s Protractor series, one of his most dynamic and wide-ranging groups of works from the late sixties and early seventies, which he originally conceived as a group of thirty-one unique compositions executed in three variations each, with internal structures ranging from the fan-like and circular, to the semicircular and interwoven. The geometric character of Protractor Variation, which recalls interlacing Celtic knot ornaments, and the uniform tonality of the overlapping bands, are characteristic examples of Stella’s technical mastery, as well as his intensive study of medieval illuminated manuscripts – a topic he began engaging with during his student years and continued to explore for decades in his breakthrough shaped canvases.
According to art historian Gregor Stemmrich, Stella’s “calling the series ‘Protractor,’ naming it after a tool for drawing and measuring that everyone is familiar with from school, indicates that he wished to allude to Jasper John’s use of the ‘ruler’ as a tool for smearing paint into semicircles, which he used as a ‘device’ … in many paintings, in order to emphasize the flatness of the canvas and to leave no doubt about the material quality of the painting” (Claudia Bodin, Markus Brüderlin, Pauline Cumbers, and Frank Stella, et al., Frank Stella: The Retrospective Works 1958-2012, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2021, p. 49). Stella’s highly original approaches to painting and composition, undoubtedly influenced by Johns’ abstract style, would have significant echoes in post-war American art. The illusionist effects of Protractor Variation, heightened by its strikingly impressive size and overlapping forms separated by borders of raw canvas, represent a crucial challenge to the traditional hierarchy between figure and ground. Such highly original approaches to abstraction, which are demonstrated so brilliantly in Protractor Variation, would become central to Stella’s legacy as one of the most influential painters in the canon of twentieth-century art.
“My main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms”
The Protractors were popular because they combined the accessibility and exuberance of Abstract Expressionism with the Minimalist aesthetic and theory, emphasizing the physicality and objective qualities of art over inner meaning and self-reflection. To achieve this aim, in Protractor Variation, 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. In short, Stella broke not only the style that came before him by pushing painting in a new direction through his treatment of color, presence and line, but also by creating a form that is at once familiar and new.