Frank Stella’s Gur Variation II is a canvas of epic proportions in which the artist’s vigorous and unwavering love for the components of painting shines through in its seemingly effortless unity of form and color, undulating with vibrancy through the movement of its lines. At once awesome and fanciful, cool and animated, it is a work which captures the multitudes of Stella’s unparalleled abilities. Painted in 1968, Gur Variation II is part of the artist’s Protractor series which dominated his output of the late 1960s and is now one of his most famous series of works. After completing a trip to Iran, Stella was fascinated by the circular layouts of many of the cities he visited. This inspiration can be found not only in the curvilinear forms that weave together almost like ancient Islamic arabesque motifs, but within the names of the paintings in the series. Each work is named after an ancient Middle Eastern city; in this instance, the title refers to Gur, the first circular city which was destroyed and flooded by Alexander the Great during his conquest through what is now modern-day Iran.
Stella has always understood painting as an art form which should not be based on illusionistic pretense–a feeling reinforced when he first saw Jasper Johns’s Flag at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958 while he was still a student at Princeton. With Johns’s stripping of meaning through the repetition of familiar forms fresh in his mind, Stella was propelled into an imaginative engagement with rhythm, repetition and objectivity. The product of this inspiration were the Black Paintings, a grouping of works in which linear stripes of deep black are separated on by miniscule sections of raw canvas. These black paintings, which were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art’s Sixteen Americans exhibition of 1959 not only solidified Stella’s cool, methodical, and geometric approach to both abstraction as a subject and painting as a medium, but secured his fame as an artist, propelling him into the spotlight as a bridge between the dominant modes of Abstract Expressionism and the newly bourgeoning Minimalist movement.
These themes are perfectly encapsulated within Gur Variation II, conveying a sense of the artist encountering, engaging, and solving problems of form, content and color. Six canvases, four a traditional square shaped canvas and two in his now famous shaped canvases, join together creating one large plane that is monumental in size. Through the relationship of their shapes, the canvases allow Stella a vast playing field on which to experiment with the intermingling of forms, creating an expertly executed composition. Thick bands of soft pastel curve and flow through and around the boundaries of their canvas, stacking on top of one another to suggest circular forms that pulsate in all directions, meeting each other in the central portion of the canvas. At the same time, the curve of the shaped canvases allows these forms to radiate outwards, extending the already large composition even further into the viewer’s space and hinting at Stella’s later works, which begin to question the arbitrary distinction between painting and sculpture. These rhythmic movements are softened by Stella’s choices of color. Muted blues, dusty pinks and peaches, and soft greys and creams dominate, punctuated by pops of green, orange and purple. As in the Black Paintings that propelled Stella to fame, Gur Variation II was painted by hand, yet with an exactness so expertly rendered it almost appears mechanical in its making. The appearance of the hand can be found most evidently along the edges of each color, in which the small strips of raw canvas reveal the slight deficiencies of each line.
The precision that is inherent in Stella’s canvases and the artist’s interest in the objecthood of paintings rather than representation has led him to be regarded as a precursor to Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. As Andre himself has said of Stella’s work, “Frank Stella is not interested in expression or sensitivity. He is interested in the necessities of painting…His stripes are the paths of brush on canvas” (C. Andre, quoted in A.D. Weinberg, “The End Depends Upon the Beginning,” in M. Auping, Frank Stella: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2015, p. 1). Indeed, there is a distinct lack of spirituality and physicality to Stella’s work, adjectives that are often used in association with the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and other members of the Abstract Expressionist movement which just preceded the 1960s. Yet, as the subtle hand of the artist evident in Gur Variation II reveals, it would be a mistake to view Stella exclusively through the rhetoric of Minimalism. Instead, one can see him as a bridge between these two dominating movements, a perfect blend of two seemingly disparate engagements with the practice of art marking.
With abstraction standing as one of the most defining artistic statements of the 20th century, Frank Stella indisputably stands as one of the few who reign supreme in its mastery, both for his innovation in form and material and his insistence on exploration into its continuing possibilities. An achievement of immense vigor, Gur Variation II conveys a sense of the artist encountering, engaging and solving problems of form and content. An animated mixture of material exploration and kinetic buoyancy, Gur Variation II is simultaneously exhilarating and uncompromising, an artistic expression of extraordinary passion and pure display of his commitment to painting.