Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Helen Frankenthaler

October 5, 2016

Throughout her six-decade career, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) created a dramatic body of highly expressive abstract painting, unmatched in intensity and lyricism. Trained at Bennington College in Vermont, Frankenthaler had her first encounter with the New York art world in 1950 through her relationship with the renowned art critic, Clement Greenberg. Enthralled by the potency of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, Frankenthaler began her own experiments with the medium, laying canvases on the floor before applying paint. She developed what later became her famous ‘soak stain’ technique, in which she applied paint thinned out with turpentine directly to raw, unprimed canvas. This created a uniquely luminous effect in which the surface of the canvas and the paint merged, appearing to become one entity. Frankenthaler’s use of this technique served to emphasize the flat surface over painterly illusion, drawing the viewer’s attention to the nature of painting itself and ultimately leading to her association with Color Field painting. The technique proved influential among her contemporaries including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA)

Lot 176, Helen Frankenthaler, Jade, 1976
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

Frankenthaler’s atmospheric work eschewed the strictures of modernism’s monochromatic grid to create a space of boundless expression, excessive and sublime in equal measure. As the 1960s and ‘70s dawned, so too did pop art, performance art and other experimental forms. While Frankenthaler was resolutely an abstract painter, she was not immune to such dramatic changes in artistic practice, and in her lectures from this time she maintained that the act of painting was in itself vital. The forms of her work grew noticeably hard-edged as she began to work with acrylic paint instead of oils. She continued to employ her stain effect, but acrylic provided her with greater control over her effects as it was quicker to dry than oil paint. This sharp shift attests to Frankenthaler’s continued experimentation with forms and materials, long into the latter stages of her career.

From Peter Loughrey, Director of Modern Design & Fine Art:

“It’s a big deal to be able to have one of these Frankenthaler works available. Paintings like this don’t come up in this market very often and LAMA doesn’t always get the opportunity to present works of this stature – it’s a great painting at a very attractive estimate. Frankenthaler was known for destroying works which she did not like. If it didn’t come out right, she would get rid of it. So it’s a distinctive work from this period in her career. Moreover, Frankenthaler’s work is highly sought after and can exceed expectations at auction. A identical size painting, which was made in the same year as Jade (1977) recently sold for double the price of this work, so we’re very fortunate to have the painting available at such a reasonable estimate.”

Created in 1976, Jade demonstrates Frankenthaler’s facility with acrylics. Broad brushstrokes of sienna are offset by deep horizontal sweeps of prismatic blue, while the image is framed top and bottom by delicate white marks. The work carries Frankenthaler’s signature balance of control and spontaneity. As the artist said, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once… For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked… that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart.”  Frankenthaler was often inspired by encounters with nature and, reminiscent of a foaming sea and muddy shore, Jade makes clear allusions to landscape. One of the artist’s more tonally muted paintings, it possesses an elemental power, expressed in its expanses of deep color. The work coincided with a period of great confidence for Frankenthaler, whose reputation had been cemented by her retrospective at the Whitney in 1969. During the 1970s, the artist began working on a more intimate scale, which enabled her to test out new ideas. Unafraid of disposing of works which did not meet her high standards, Jade is one of the smaller format works which survives from this time, a testament to its importance.

Dreishpoon, Douglas, Giving Up One’s Mark: Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2014. 4.
Rose, Barbara, Frankenthaler, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1975. 85


Lot 176
Helen Frankenthaler
Acrylic on canvas
Signed lower left; signed, titled, and dated verso; retains Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery label verso Together with copy of invoice from André Emmerich Gallery
Canvas: 44.5″ x 41.5″; Frame: 45.5″ x 42.5″
Provenance: André Emmerich Gallery, New York, New York; Private Collection, Bethesda, Maryland (acquired directly from the above, 1977)
Estimate: $300,000 – 500,000
October 9, 2016 Modern Art & Design Auction

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