The present work is an outstanding example from an important series of paintings by Frank Stella that represented a significant departure from work he had been creating earlier in the 1960s. In Saskatoon II , a large canvas (measuring some 16 feet across), the viewer encounters a vibrant, intensely kinetic composition of interlocking circles, half circles, arcs and related forms, painted in luminous, Day-Glo colors that create juxtapositions that seem to actually vibrate as a result of their tonal harmonies and contrasts. At first glance, the composition seems to consist of two circles occupying the left and right halves of the canvas. But looking more closely, the circles fragment into a multitude of arcs, each seeming to have a dynamic character of its own and appearing to spill over the bounds of the painting’s frame. In fact, the energetic forms seem barely contained by the straight lines of the rectangular painting’s border, appearing so powerfully charged that it is easy to imagine the shapes continuing into space, beyond the limits set by the canvas itself, as if they could extend indefinitely. “Like clover-leaf intersections contracted within the frame of a pictorial kaleidoscope, these restless arcs strain their boundaries, exchanging positions in depth, brusquely switching roles of visual priority, pressing inward and outward, forward and backward for completion of their fragmentary shapes and abruptly interrupted energies.” (R. Rosenblum, Frank Stella, New York, 1971, p. 51).
In Stella’s work, shapes that seem initially to be the dominant foreground imagery within the composition recede, and background shapes move forward. Just as quickly, however, the play of movement reverses itself in what critics describe as a particularly notable accomplishment of of this series and related paintings: a highly charged, restless interchange, as the various forms that make up the present work shift back and forth before our eyes, constantly evolving, vying for dominance within the composition. The interweaving of the various bands of color seem at first to suggest three dimensionality, but as the viewer continues to look, they appear to quickly merge with the other shapes and colors in the compositional space, relinquishing their depth and uniting into an all-over flat picture plane. Numerous critics have observed that one of the great accomplishments of Saskatoon II and other related works by Stella is the artist’s remarkable ability to achieve such complex results from a vocabulary of such clear, simple components.
Saskatoon II is from Stella’s highly successful Saskatchewan series of paintings, created during the late 1960s and early 1970s, inspired by the artist’s time spent teaching at the Emma Lake Workshop at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina, in the summer of 1967. Numerous significant figures representative of postwar modernism have participated in this workshop series, including Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Barnett Newman, and critic Clement Greenberg, among other notables. Individual works in the series are identifiable by title, each of the paintings named after a location in the Canadian province of the series title. The series extends the ideas and forms (circles and half circles, arcs, petal motifs, interlacing shapes, brilliant colors, the complexity of the figure-ground relationship) that Stella began working with in an earlier group of paintings, called the Protractor series, but differs from that earlier series in its use of rectangle or square-shaped canvases, whereas the paintings in the Protractor series are painted on shaped canvases that take the form of arcs or half circles, mirroring the painted forms. Both series are significant developments in Stella’s career, as they mark a departure from the artist’s earlier use of straight lines to build compositions.
The sources from which Stella drew inspiration for the compositional forms in the present work are intriguing and diverse. He had traveled to the Middle East in the early 1960s, about five years before Saskatoon II was painted, observing Islamic art and architectural ornamental motifs during his travels, and subsequently studying Islamic art after returning home. Stella also was interested in 7th- and 8th-century Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells. While still an undergraduate at Princeton University, before beginning his painting career, he wrote an essay discussing Jackson Pollock's painterly technique in relation to decorative motifs in these lavishly ornamented medieval illustrated books. Stella has referred to the work of Henri Matisse as a source of inspiration for the paintings of this period as well, apparent in his use of bold powerful colors and of ornamental motifs that form the essential architecture of Stella’s compositions and convey dynamic movement.
Writing not long after Saskatoon II was painted, and summing up the artist’s career after his first decade of accomplishment, the influential art historian and curator Robert Rosenblum observed that, the “unique qualities that make Stella exceptional [include his] capacity to invest abstract painting with a sense of urgent energies and velocities and to make it convey emotions that range from puritan sobriety to delirious jubilation; his ability to revitalize simultaneously the eye and the mind with images both immediately arresting in their sensuous directness and slowly compelling in their logical inevitability; and not least, his rare power, in a period of twentieth-century history where artistic life-spans can be depressingly brief, to sustain a prodigious fertility of invention.” (R. Rosenblum, op. cit., p. 52).