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“Protractor, Variation I” by Frank Stella

“Protractor, Variation I” by Frank Stella is an acrylic and graphite painting on canvas at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Created in 1969, the painting is 16 feet wide by 8 feet tall, and is composed of rhythmic bands of color in the shape of a protractor. This work is one of nearly 100 paintings in Stella’s Protractor series. Discover more reasons why this is a masterpiece with Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Jazz music plays) Hello, I am Franklin Sirmans, Director of the Jorge M. Pérez Art Museum Miami. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite works from our collection, Frank Stella's "Protractor, Variation I," and tell you why I think it is truly a masterpiece. Pérez Art Museum began operating as an institution in Downtown Miami in 1984 and began collecting in 1994. Since 2013, we have been located on Biscayne Bay in our unique and innovatively designed building by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. "Protractor, Variation I" is a monumental acrylic and graphite painting on canvas that spans sixteen feet wide by eight feet tall and, as its name suggests, it's a work in a series by the great American painter Frank Stella. The painting was bequeathed to the Pérez by Jan Cowles in 2018, an important patron of the museum. She had it displayed in her Park Avenue apartment for almost fifty years. Frank Stella was born in 1936 and grew up in Malden, Massachusetts. He spent his formative teenage years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. There, he was surrounded by modern abstract painting at the on-campus Addison Gallery of American Art, the first museum in America to exhibit the work of Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. While there, he also encountered the art of Hans Hofmann, who, like Albers, was deeply concerned with color and abstraction. These two artists as espoused by the Gallery became hallmarks of Stella's engagement with modern art. After graduating from Phillip's Academy, Stella attended Princeton University. He began attending exhibitions at New York galleries and museums. He emulated the preeminent Abstract Expressionist painters of the moment, such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, working his own way through what was being created, by imitation. By 1958, while still at Princeton, he was on his way to redefining art history with a series of paintings that were wholly his own. Rather than replicating the gestures and movements as painted by his predecessors, Stella went the opposite direction and began to explore the properties and materials he used -the color of the paint, the flatness of the canvas. He presented the painting as an object rather than something that represented a scene, an action or emotion and became one of the preeminent painters of the Minimalist movement. "Protractor, Variation I" was made in 1969. He arrived at this colorful painting after he had already exhausted other styles and ways of making abstract paintings. Stella has constantly probed the liminal space where painting meets sculpture, in terms of form and dimension. Two other works from our collection by Stella also explore this territory: "Chodorów II," 1971; and "The Quadrant," from 1988. Stella is an astounding innovator. He never settled comfortably in one place. He moves rapidly from irregular and regular shaped paintings into multiple forms that eventually lead to relief paintings that had pluridimensionality. This particular work is exemplary of Stella's practice from 1967 to 1971, a period defined by his "Protractor" paintings and arguably the prolific artist's most important and well-known series of works. It is one of 27 different variations, using the tool of math students everywhere. The rhythmic bands of color in "Protractor, Variation I" form a latticework that is complex and yet derived from the simplicity of the protractor. This is not the abstraction of the Expressionists: The paint is applied perfectly, manicured and clean. In 1969, Stella said, "My main interest has been to make what is popularly called decorative painting truly viable in unequivocal abstract terms." The scale of this work gives it an architectural function. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the "Protractors," a group of nearly 100 paintings, in three distinct motifs, are the largest series of paintings Stella made to date. The Roman numeral I in the title identifies the work as part of a specific design group designating its surface patterning; in this case, the semicircle of the protractor resting firmly on its rectilinear base. This half circle - rather than the full circle - is the primary unit of all the formats. Yet, no matter how complex these interweavings become, their color and hard edges between bands of color give them a clarity of thought and composition that is remarkable. I want to thank you for taking the time to watch today and to learn more about "Protractor, Variation I" by Frank Stella. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the work with friends and family. And please visit the Bank of America Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss a moment. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.