Helen Frankenthaler - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 18, 2022 | Phillips
  • "The painter makes something magical, spatial, and alive on a surface that is flat and with materials that are inert. That magic is what makes paintings unique and necessary."
    —Helen Frankenthaler 

    Painted in 1963, Helen Frankenthaler’s Blue Dance marks the seminal moment in the artist’s career when she established the painterly vocabulary that came to define her celebrated oeuvre. Here, dynamic passages of blue interplay with red, plum, and yellow, evoking a gently descending firework. Bridging two pivotal chapters of Frankenthaler’s practice, Blue Dance showcases the groundbreaking soak-stain technique that the artist pioneered in the 1950s and the terrains of pure color that dominated her canvases beginning in the early 1960s. Arriving to auction for the first time, this exceptional work emerges from the Mayerson Family Collection where it has resided since its acquisition from the artist in 1987.


    Helen Frankenthaler in 1964. Photograph by Alexander Liberman / Courtesy the Getty Research Institute © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2000.R.19). Artwork: © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    A passionate collector of Abstract Expressionist art, Rhoda Mayerson was first introduced to Frankenthaler in New York City in 1987 through art advisor Cindy Goodman and Frankenthaler’s assistant Ed Youkilis. In October of the previous year, Goodman had informed Mayerson about four available paintings by the artist created in the early 1960s—including the present work and Mountain Pool, 1963, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York—noting that “these paintings are from her most desirable period to date...[they are] beautiful.”i In March 1987, Mayerson visited the artist at her studio and purchased Blue Dance directly from Frankenthaler, which until now has remained in the esteemed Mayerson Family collection of works by post-war American masters such as Mark Rothko, Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein.


    Invoice of the present work from the artist’s studio to Rhoda Mayerson.


    By the time Frankenthaler conceived Blue Dance, the artist had already become widely known for the innovative soak-stain technique developed the prior decade. After her pivotal visit to Jackson Pollock’s studio and encounter with his ink works on paper, Frankenthaler conceived Mountains and Sea in 1952—her first work created by pouring thinned paint directly onto unprimed canvas, which would mark the dawn of the Color Field Movement and influence artists such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Frankenthaler’s unique staining method allowed the paint to soak into the canvas, rather than dry on top, resulting in an ethereal, halo-like quality around the pigment. In the present work, pools of color spontaneously bleed or nestle into the edges of one another, at once revealing the artist’s controlled, mature painterly handling and her foremost concern to achieve an effortless, improvised appearance in painting that departs from “a labored, made, applied look.” As she expressed, she sought to create “something that looks as if it was born all at once. As if it happened.”ii 


    Morris Louis, Point of Tranquility, 1959-1960. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Artwork: © Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "Whatever the medium, there is the difficult, challenge, fascination…of learning a new method: the wonderful puzzles and problems of translating new materials."
    —Helen Frankenthaler
    Blue Dance reveals the transformation from the gestural forms that characterized her work of the late 1950s, to the all-over areas of color beginning in the early 1960s that would become the hallmark of her oeuvre. At this time, Frankenthaler had been become dissatisfied with the sparser, more graphic paintings she was producing with her soak-stain method and sought to refine her painterly language towards greater structure, control, and clarity. “Now,” she expressed to Grace Hartigan in 1962, “I think more of the actual painting problems and when I read, see, hear what those around me are doing I often get a futile feeling; that what I've said is fait accompli...I feel a tremendous desire for a ‘new’ development...for this reason I hope to reach out from within and grow rather than give up and stop.”iii This sentiment materialized into the “wild experiments and surprises” brewing in her studio, as she informed Hartigan in the year of the present work, when Frankenthaler began exploring with acrylic and composing her free-flowing forms with paint rather than line.iv With its juxtaposed areas of lush-stained color elegantly spread and balanced across the canvas surface, Blue Dance embodies the artist’s mature practice towards a “total color image” that would chart the course of her legendary career.v 


    Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue), 1953. Artwork: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
    Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Red and Blue), 1953. Artwork: © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    While building upon the expressive focus on color espoused by her contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Hans Hofmann, Frankenthaler forged her unique visual language within the Abstract Expressionist circle in her relentless pursuit to cultivate her own painterly sensibility. While here the sense of movement and the performative qualities of creation reflect Pollock’s influence on the artist, they are expressed through Frankenthaler’s singular vocabulary that cemented her as a leading figure of her milieu. By eschewing the dramatic brushwork of others in the movement that guided her practice in the previous decade, Blue Dance demonstrates the artist’s emphasis on the surface of the canvas itself, rather than deploying the surface as a base to construct a sense of depth as her peers did. Revealing Frankenthaler’s primary pictorial concerns on the harmonious interplay between form, color, and space across the flat canvas, the present work reflects the artist’s practice of titling her works based on what the finished picture suggested to her. Here, blue engages with the warmer colors and negative space—which for Frankenthaler “has just as active a role as the ‘positive’ painted space”—in a chromatic waltz, a result of her vision to “let the picture lead you where it must go.”vi, vii 


    Frankenthaler’s 1963 Paintings in Institutional Collections

  • i Cindy Goodman to Rhoda Mayerson, October 6, 1986, unpublished letter.

    ii Helen Frankenthaler interviewed by Arlene Jacobowitz, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, unpublished transcript, May 23, 1966, p. 5.
    iii Helen Frankenthaler to Grace Hartigan, Syracuse University Libraries, letter, July 4, 1962.
    iv Helen Frankenthaler to Grace Hartigan, Syracuse University Libraries, letter, May 20, 1963.
    v B. H. Friedman, “Towards a Total Color Image," in Art News, vol. 65, no. 4, Summer 1966, pp. 31-33, 67, 68.
    vi Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Julia Brown, After Mountains and Sea: Helen Frankenthaler 1956-1959, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 41.
    vii Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in “Helen Frankenthaler, Back to the Future,” The New York Times, April 27, 2003, online.

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1987

Property from the Mayerson Family Collection


Blue Dance

signed "Frankenthaler" lower right
oil on canvas
49 x 62 3/8 in. (124.5 x 158.4 cm)
Painted in 1963.

Full Cataloguing

$1,800,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $2,208,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Global Managing Director and Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1278

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Associate Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2022