In the late 1960s, Frank Stella began a series of what he called his “protractor paintings” — huge canvases, often oddly-shaped, based on geometric forms he’d drawn from motifs in Islamic art. They were jarring, at least to the community of avant-garde New York painters for whom Stella had become a leading light. They were bright, playful, welcoming — everything that painting, for a certain set, had become determined not to be.
Let it never be said that Stella followed the crowd. The artist, who grew up in nearby Malden, was in town this week to see a replica of “Damascus Gate (Variation I),” one of his protractor pieces, installed on a building in the Seaport District (find it at 60 Seaport Blvd). The piece, commissioned by Boston-based WS Development with Marianne Boesky Gallery, is a warm welcome home for a Boston-bred artist who cut a unique path through the global art world.
Stella, now in his 80s, became one of the most important artists of the 20th century less for his allegiance to any particular movement than for his gift for originality and reinvention. His Black Paintings, from 1959 — dark monochrome canvases riven with rigid patterning; they are as they sound — set a standard for reductive Minimalism, coming out of the explosive era of Abstract Expressionism, and made Stella a star while still in his 20s.
But his restless curiosity has seen him reinvent again and again, which makes any period, or even any single piece, less representative of Stella in full than just a point on his ever zigzagging line. With a 60-year career encompassing painting, sculpture, installation, and endless crossovers among all three, he’s one of the most relentlessly interesting artists this country has ever produced. A permanent public space here with one of his best-known works seems only right.