Is it a painting or a sculpture?

Minimum Grade Level: 6th–7th grade
National Core Arts Standards:
VA:Cr2.1.6a Demonstrate openness in trying new ideas, materials, methods, and approaches in making works of art and design.
VA:Cr2.1.7a Demonstrate persistence in developing skills with various materials, methods, and approaches in creating works of art or design.

Frank Stella, Protractor, 1969, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 96 x 192.5 x 3 in. (Peréz Art Museum Miami)

Frank Stella, Protractor, Variation I, 1969, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 96 x 192.5 x 3 in. (Peréz Art Museum Miami)

In works like Protractor, Variation I from 1969, Frank Stella explored the “space between painting and sculpture.” He focused more on the materials and properties of painting than on creating an image or representation of something—whether that be a scene from life or an expression of his emotions. The result is a work of art that is principally about itself (the physical paint strategically placed on canvas that is stretched in a particular shape). It defies singular definition as either a painting or a sculpture. As part of a series, the work also reflects one instance of a prolonged exploration of the materials and properties of painting in different variations. 

In this activity, carry out your own investigation of the relationship between painting and sculpture. 

1. Generate initial definitions for both painting and sculpture.

Do this by looking at examples of artworks rather than looking up the terms in a dictionary or other source (note: there are lots of examples to explore in the Masterpiece Moment video series as well as on the Smarthistory site). You may want to create a Venn diagram or chart of your definitions to see where there are similarities and differences.

2. Create a work of art inspired by Protractor, Variation I.

Identify a tool that you use frequently, such as a pencil, fork, key, scissors, or paper clip. Make some initial drawings of the item, breaking it down into basic geometric shapes. Recreate the item with paint and cardboard, using the geometric shapes from your drawing and different colors for each as you paint. Make at least 4 or 5 different versions of your tool, varying the size, colors, and placement of the geometric shapes each time (this may lead you to stray from a direct representation of your original tool and that’s okay!). Pay attention as well to how you apply the paint, exploring different thicknesses and textures. 

3. Reflect on what you’ve done.

Do you think you made a series of paintings or sculptures? Why? What did you notice about your process that informs your answer? Did this experience expand your definitions of painting and sculpture? Is it possible for something to be both at the same time? 

4. Have a debate.

Share your artworks and your reflections with others. See where you agree and disagree. Debate your ideas and perspectives as a group. Together, consider why it was important for Frank Stella to make a work like Protractor, Variation I.