To many artists of Frank Stella’s generation, the highly subjective paintings of the abstract expressionists seemed mannered and self-indulgent. Stella’s response was to systematize the abstract picture using geometry and a strict but arbitrary set of procedures. Explaining that his art “is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there,” he sought to distill the image to paint and canvas alone. He stripped his paintings of story or statement—even a brushstroke conveyed too much personality. Stella methodically developed images in series, first mapping the designs on paper before transferring them to canvas. Little was left to chance.
Raqqa II belongs to Stella’s aptly titled Protractor Series, begun in 1967. Though never completed, the series was to include thirty-one compositions, each to be carried out in three different formats: interlaces, rainbows, and fans. He titled the paintings after ancient, circular-plan cities. (Raqqa in Syria was an important trade center under the Arab caliphs.) Raqqa II does not lie quietly on the wall. It dominates its surroundings. What at first glance appears like a childlike pattern is actually a highly complex exercise in perception. Bright bands of flat color arc and overlap, promising an illusion of receding space. However, their containment within a strict system of seven shaped and framed units confounds that illusion. The monumental scale and aggressive confidence of Raqqa II typify American art during the 1960s.