Frank Stella's Flin Flon of 19701 is a 2.7 metre square canvas painted in polymer and fluorescent paint. It is part of the Flin Flon series of paintings, named after the Canadian town of Flin Flon in Manitoba. The related Saskatoon paintings are named after the Saskatchewan city across the border from Flin Flon. These works were produced while Stella was teaching at the Emma Lake workshop at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina. 'Although he was currently working on shaped canvases, he had no access to these specially produced supports while in Saskatchewan. Instead, he modified the protractor format to fit onto a square canvas.'2 The composition is broadly divided into four semi-circular arcs which form a geometric flower motif.
Departing from the strict rectilinear compositions of his famous 1959 Black Paintings, in Flin Flon1970 Stella explored the lyrical possibilities of circular form and luminous colour while retaining the control and austerity of his earlier work. The vaulting arcs and related bands are based on the semi-circular outline of a protractor. They are interlaced in such a way that the distinction between foreground and background begins to break down. The effect is to create a perplexing variety of coloured formations which seem to continually evolve before the viewer's eyes. Robert Rosenblum has written of this group of works:
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.3
The artist achieved this visual complexity within a composition that is perfectly integrated as an aesthetic whole.
Stella drew on a number of different sources in creating this painting. He was deeply influenced at the time by his study of Islamic art, having travelled to the Near East in 1963. In his closely-related Protractorseries of paintings out of which the Flin Flon series developed, he titled a number of the works after ancient circular city plans in Asia Minor. Furthermore, as a number of historians and critics have noted, there is a close relationship between Stella's work of this period and Islamic ornament. Other sources for Flin Flon 1970 can be traced to the artist's interest in Hiberno-Saxon illumination. In an early essay written while at Princeton, Stella compared Jackson Pollock's looping drip patterns to the interweaving motifs in these illustrated manuscripts from the 7th and 8th centuries, and Rosenblum has explicitly compared this period of Stella's work to what he calls the 'expansive and open proliferations' of the illuminated manuscript Book of Kells.
Stella himself has cited the work of Matisse in relation to this period of his work. In 1970 he commented that '…I would like to combine the abandon and indulgence of Matisse's Dance with the overall strength and sheer formal inspiration of a picture like his Moroccans.'4 The comparison between Flin Flon 1970 and Matisse is compelling. As in the work of the French painter, the colour of Stella's work is rich and sumptuous, there is a strong ornamental motif structuring the composition, and the arabesque lines convey a dynamic sense of movement.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra