Update Project - Frank Stella, Protractor Series

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Protractor Series, Frank Stella, 1967-71

Frank Stella explored the boundaries of minimalism in the 1960s by creating paintings on non-traditional canvas shapes. He began by crafting canvases that were still somewhat rectilinear - in N, L, and T shapes, for example. Later in the decade, he began to push boundaries even further when he began his Protractor Series, a set of paintings based around the arcs and curves that can be created with a protractor. Each painting is named after an ancient Middle Eastern city; Stella had just visited Iran and took note of the old cities' circular plans whose paths interlaced and interweaved "like snakes swallowing their tails".

A piece in the series, Madinat as-Salam I is a work whose canvas shape can't even be described as a traditional shape - the painting conforms to the lines and curves outlined by the canvas shape that Stella created, aligning semi-circular protractors to form circles and sunsets.  I was inspired when I saw a photograph of this piece hanging on a wall due to Stella's use of bright colors, solid lines, and exploration of space.  I extended my project to not only update Madinat as-Salam I (1970), but also four other pieces in the series -- Agbatana III (1968), Firuzabad (1970), Raqqa II (1970), and Harran II (1967). 

Protractor Series pushed the rectangular-canvas boundary even further than Stella's earlier Irregular Polygons, and some even describe the shaped canvases as a hybrid of painting and sculpture.  The paintings play with space and illusion, giving the appearance the beginnings of a three-dimensional piece yet keeping the surface completely flat.  Stella would later enter the sculpture realm by adding relief and protruding surfaces to his paintings, but Protractor Series truly represents a body of work on the edge.

Pixel Series, Kelsey Tripp, 2013

I updated Frank Stella's Protractor Series by writing a program to override the traditional rectangular windows through which we typically view and interact with content on a computer.  Stella literally pushed the boundaries of painting by exploring new canvas shapes.  Computers today haven't been pushed to their boundaries; rectangular screens are used almost exclusively and the windows within operating systems are almost always rectangular as well.

The nature of my project allows me to choose any of Stella's shaped canvases and view them inside a shaped frame, and the Protractor Series offers a wide range of curving and crossing shapes that can be seen in the screenshots below.  Because Protractor Series explores space and three-dimensional illusion, but falls short of actually pushing into the realm of sculpture, the update appropriately breaks the rectilinear bounds of the computer program's frame, but falls short of breaking out even further – a next step that would require the paintings to break free of the flatness of the computer screen itself.

I've attempted to break the rectangular-screen boundary by creating a dynamic way for users to view their content on their screen.  Instead of having to open and view images from within the bounds of a rectangular image viewer, the audience can make their desktop a virtual gallery and view Stella's pieces in the shapes that they were meant to be displayed.  The audience can launch the program and choose one of Stella's pieces to view; the program will analyze the work and generate an appropriately shaped frame in which to display the piece.  The user can then interact with the piece as they would either with a work of art in a virtual desktop gallery, or with typical photo viewing program by being able to move the frame around their screen and close the program at will.


A collection of Stella's works, including an image of Frank Stella sitting in front of his own Firuzabad


Madinat as-Salam I, as displayed in a shaped frame.

The Frank Stella Art Selector launcher options.



Five of the Protractor Series works displayed digitally.


The Update Process

I wrote a Java program that will make launch an image viewer and modify the shape of the program's frame in order to best fit the image.  First, I take in a PNG image in which the shape of the image is defined by the outline where the alpha channel changes from transparent to opaque.  I run an outline tracing algorithm and draw a path in this shape, which I then pass to the window frame and override its default rectangular shape.  Finally, the image is displayed within the frame, although you might not even recognize that there is a frame because it conforms the the shape of the image quite well.  In the program you can select from one of five default images, all taken from Stella's Protractor Series, and the artwork will be displayed as if it is hanging in a virtual gallery defined by your desktop.  Each of Stella's pieces will be launched with a virtual placard displaying its name, which doubles as an exit button to close the frame.  Alternatively, the user can choose to input their own path to a PNG image, and as long as the image has some transparency and the outline does not touch the edge pixels, the launcher will display the user's chosen artwork within a frame molded to its shape.  The program can be downloaded and the source code can be viewed below.

Download the program // View the source code

Note: You must have Java 7 installed on your system in order to run the program.


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