In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Frank Stella broke the stronghold of Abstract Expressionism with his deceptively simple paintings of black stripes separated by narrow lines of unpainted canvas. With their emphasis on control and rationalism, the Black Paintings opened genuinely new paths for abstraction and exerted a profound influence on the art of the 1960s. A major shift from this work began to develop in 1966 with his Irregular Polygons, canvases in the shapes of irregular geometric forms and characterized by large unbroken areas of color. As this new vocabulary developed into a more open and color-oriented pictorial language, the works underwent a metamorphosis in size, expressing an affinity with architecture in their monumentality. Stella also introduced curves into his works, marking the beginning of the Protractor series. Harran II evinces the great vaulting compositions and lyrically decorative patterns that are the leitmotif of the series, which is based on the semicircular drafting instrument used for measuring and constructing angles.
Most of the paintings’ titles are taken from the names of ancient cities in Asia Minor. A Roman numeral following the title indicates which of three design groups—“interlaces,” “rainbows,” or “fans”—encompasses its surface patterning. Harran II is composed of a full circle formed of two vertical protractors, each of which interlocks with a horizontal protractor shape. In turn, each protractor-shaped area contains eight concentric circular bands—the “rainbows”—that articulate the surface of the canvas.
Although the dominant motifs of the Protractor series are circular or curvilinear, every shape is actually defined by pairs of horizontal and vertical lines that intersect at right angles; the gridded rectilinear pattern that is formed is superimposed over the decor-ative arcs. Through the device of the protractor and the use of almost psychedelic color—a combination of acrylic and fluorescent pigments—Stella brought abstraction and decorative pattern painting into congruence in a manner that challenged the conventions of both traditions.