Helen Frankenthaler - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 14, 2015 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    The artist
    David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto
    Private Collection

  • Exhibited

    Toronto, David Mirvish Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler, May 1 - June 1, 1971
    Montreal, Musée d'art contemporain, Onze Artistes Americains, November 4 - December 2, 1973

  • Literature

    Onze Artistes Americains, exh. cat., Montreal, Musée d'art contemporain, Montreal, 1973, p. 30

  • Catalogue Essay

    “There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.” Helen Frankenthaler, 2003

    Helen Frankenthaler’s Pavillion is a deeply rich and personal exploration of line and color, one that results in a harmonious balance where ground and figure become one. More simplified and pared down than her earlier works, this painting from 1971 exists purely as an abstract form. It employs only a small range of deeply tinted hues and prominently features the raw, unprimed canvas as a central component. Expansive swaths of definite cornflower blue largely dominate the exterior and spread outward beyond the edges of the painting. Forceful, forest green shapes dance amongst complimentarily splashes of yellow; thinly painted black and red contours delicately intermingle alongside them. The overall effect is lyrical.

    Frankenthaler’s distinct approach to abstraction would prove to be widely influential for a new generation of American painters. In 1952, she invented what’s known as the “soak stain” technique, which involved pouring heavily diluted oil paints mixed with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvas. The treatment bore a resemblance to watercolor when applied. Frequently, this staining technique was done with canvases laid out on the floor, a reference to Jackson Pollock’s method of drip painting, of which the “soak stain” technique was a variant. Yet, the unique combination of color and form in Frankenthaler’s paintings freed them of the heavy gesture that preoccupied Pollock’s oeuvre and created an original imagery that was luminescent and open. Through the absorption of the pigment into the raw canvas, Frankenthaler effectively made visible the inherent flatness of the painting itself, which was a significant advancement at the time.

    Commenting on Pollock’s influence she said, “I’ve always thought that with de Kooning you could assimilate and copy and that Pollock instead opened up what one’s own inventiveness could take off from. In other words, given one’s own talent for curiosity you could explore, originate, discover from Pollock as one might say, Picasso…” (Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in an interview with Barbara Rose, 1968)

    By first absorbing Pollock’s influence and then exploring alternative ways through it, Frankenthaler was able to adopt an innovative procedure that allowed her, and subsequently an entire generation of artists, a way out of Pollock that liberated them from the weight of Abstract Expressionism. Upon visiting Frankenthaler’s New York studio in the early 1950s, the artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis were so inspired by her stain paintings that they returned to Washington, DC and immediately began producing what would become foundational works of the Color Field movement.

    Beginning in the 1960s, Frankenthaler developed an advanced version of the stain technique. Rather than rely on oil-based pigment, which caused the canvas to denigrate over time, she instead used watered-down acrylic paint. This allowed for more permanence overall, as well as an enhanced opacity of color, which resulted in an expanded visual vocabulary. Pavillion exemplifies the way Frankenthaler utilized acrylic to express varying tonalities of color and experiment with large, abstract forms. The use of acrylic was later adopted and privileged by her contemporaries for its ability to quickly dry and become permanent.

    Pavillion, with its vast sea of a singular hue interrupted by unprimed canvas and smaller spots of color, bears a striking affinity to Frankenthaler’s Chairman of the Board, housed in The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. An emphasis on the realization of space through line, drawing and color is essential to both of these contemporaneous masterpieces. In discussing the importance of drawing in her work, Frankenthaler stated, “…for me any picture that works even if it is in the guise of pure color application, if it works, involved drawing… If it doesn’t work then it’s decorative or dead or just applied colors on a surface.” (Helen Frankenthaler, as quoted in an interview with Barbara Rose, 1968) Rather than use color merely as an end in itself, Frankenthaler often deployed color as line in order to delineate space. “I still, when I judge my own pictures, determine if they work in a certain kind of space through shape or color. I think all totally abstract pictures—the best ones that really come off—have tremendous space; perspective space despite the emphasis on flat surface.” (quoted in an interview with Henry Geldzahler for Artforum, 1965.) The concurrent engagement with space and insistence on a flat surface—beautifully articulated in Pavillion, the present lot—is what makes Frankenthaler’s work so evocative.

    The natural landscape was a continuous point of departure for Frankenthaler and her imagery was often informed by her impressions of nature; however, her paintings were never a direct abstraction of it. She was not interested in a romantic search for the sublime and did not adhere to a single artistic method. Each work was approached as an individual exploration and, unlike many of her contemporaries, she never produced work in serial terms. While her groundbreaking technique would go on to influence future artistic developments, Frankenthaler’s practice remained profoundly committed to itself. “What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it is pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is – did I make a beautiful picture.” (Helen Frankenthaler, as quoted in The New York Times, 1989.)



acrylic on canvas
81 x 108 in. (205.7 x 274.3 cm)

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for $1,145,000

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+ 1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm