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Warming the Wires
$900,000 - 1,200,000
sold for $1,635,000
André Emmerich Gallery Inc., New York
Private Collection, New York (acquired from the above in 1977)
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Ridgefield, Connecticut, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, CHANGES, May 22 - September 11, 1983, n.p. (illustrated)
John Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 278, 288 (illustrated, p. 276)
Katie Roipe, The Morning After, New York, 1993 (illustrated, cover)
Helen Frankenthaler: With Nature
Carter Ratcliff is a Contributing Editor at Art in America and the author of The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art.
Taking command of the canvas with a flood of chromatic energy, Warming the Wires, 1976, is a painting of unparalleled quality from the decade that saw the artist working consistently at the height of her powers. Helen Frankenthaler emerged early in the 1950s, the leading figure in a narrative that traces the advent of color-field painting, one of the most significant developments in post-war American art. The story begins with a meeting recounted so often that it has acquired the status of a myth. In 1952, Frankenthaler invited the critic Clement Greenberg to her studio to see a painting she had just finished. Entitled Mountains and Sea, it is abstract, though its luminous greens, blues, and orangey reds evoke a landscape scintillating with summer light.
Deeply impressed, Greenberg arranged for the painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to have a look at Mountains and Sea. More than impressed, they were stunned. At twenty-five years of age, Frankenthaler had achieved what until then had been unimaginable. She had found a use for Jackson Pollock’s drip-and-spatter technique that was not mere imitation. Pouring her high-keyed pigments in wide swathes, she soaked them into the very weave of the canvas. Here was a new idea of what painting could be. As Louis said, Mountains and Sea formed “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible” (Morris Louis, quoted in John Elderfield, Morris Louis, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986, p. 13). And of course the painting launched Frankenthaler into her own future. With Warming the Wires, she realizes possibilities that, even in hindsight, are just barely visible in Mountains and Sea.
In the earlier painting, colors hover. In Warming the Wires, they surge across the canvas, taking possession of its blankness and charging it with the graceful, athletic energy captured in photographs of Frankenthaler at work. Hers was a risk-filled method, which the finished state of Warming the Wires converts to pictorial serenity. Nonetheless, we feel her presence – the exultant, improvisatory force of her intention – in the painting’s currents of blue, pinkish maroon, and other colors too subtly intermingled to be named. From a distance, we see its grand architecture, the blocks of color juxtaposed with such confidence that they account for the entire canvas without having to occupy all it of it. Frankenthaler’s forms have a vigor that reaches, pictorially, beyond their actual limits. And when we move in for a closer look, we see grandeur give way to the seductions of nuance.
With its large, stained-in expanse of blue, Warming the Wires acknowledges the flatness of the canvas. Yet an admixture of white gives depths to this blue, and white occasionally breaks free to become a shape in its own right—or it appears as a texture laid on with a brush. Frankenthaler was not dogmatic about method. She used whatever means she deemed necessary in the creative moment. Likewise, she treated art-critical dogma as provisional, at best. According to Greenberg, who saw in Frankenthaler’s art a major justification of his theory of modernism, painting must confine itself to high-keyed color. Line is forbidden. Not one to follow anybody else’s rules, Frankenthaler reiterates the angle of Warming the Wires’s upper-right hand corner with linear streaks of white and, to the left, sends a horizontal filament of color into an otherwise empty void.
A masterpiece of gestural abstraction, Warming the Wires owes its strength not only its maker’s command of her medium but also to her courage – her utterly unfettered sense of possibility. Critically acclaimed from the outset of her career, Frankenthaler has a secure and prominent place in art history. Yet the full impact of Warming the Wires will go unfelt unless we take a larger view, one opened up by questions about the self and its relationship with the world – perennial questions that focused early in the modern era on the elusive idea of “nature.”
Toward the end of the 1980s, Frankenthaler said, “Anything that has beauty and provides order (as opposed to chaos or shock alone), anything resolved in a picture (as in nature) gives pleasure—a sense of rightness, as in being one with nature” (Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper, Miami, 2003, p. 30). By implying that, when she paints, she overcomes an estrangement from nature, the artist shows an intuitive grasp of our culture’s richest idea of the natural world, as a somehow conscious unity endlessly fragmented by the emergence of individual consciousness. In the writings of such philosophers and poets as Friedrich Schelling, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and their intellectual heirs, this account of nature becomes abstruse and ultimately imponderable. However, certain works of art give us the vivid experience of self and world reunited on terms that redefine them both, not theoretically but through painterly actions like the ones that generated Warming the Wires. With this picture, Frankenthaler presents a unique vision of nature – of natural “rightness” – and of herself as a uniquely creative force.
Requiring painters to work at a remove from their subjects, traditional representation maintains the gap between self and nature. And so it is understandable that Frankenthaler quickly left behind the minute specifics of the external world. In her mature work, she alludes to sky and water and other elements of landscape only obliquely, if at all. Likewise, the light-struck later paintings of J.M.W. Turner hover on the verge of abstraction, as do the canvases Claude Monet painted toward the end of his life. Nearer to our time, Pollock—who once declared, “I am nature”—exiled all hints of identifiable subject matter from his art for half a decade. In his drip paintings of the late 1940s, the unity of self and nature has the feel of crisis overcome, time and again, by sudden improvisation. In Monet, this unity is meditative and, in Turner, apocalyptic. Frankenthaler achieves oneness with nature in a mood of exaltation. Risking much with every gesture, she does so not just willingly but, as Warming the Wires demonstrates, with a joyousness tinged by magisterial self-confidence.
Warming the Wires
$900,000 - 1,200,000
sold for $1,635,000
New York Auction 16 November 2017