Helen Frankenthaler - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips
  • “The beauties of Helen Frankenthaler’s work are various and dramatic”
    —Frank O’Hara

    The present work installed at The Jewish Museum, Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, January 26–March 2, 1960. Image: Andre Emmerich Gallery Records and Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. / © 2024 Rudy Burckhardt / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, Artwork: © 2024 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Helen Frankenthaler's 1959 painting, Acres, stands as a testament to the artist's prowess in both material experimentation and the orchestration of color, which brought her critical acclaim in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Emphasizing its significance, Acres boasts a distinguished provenance and exhibition history. The year following its creation, the painting was showcased in back-to-back presentations of the artist’s work—initially shown alongside the seminal work Mountains and Sea, 1952 in the artist’s first institutional solo exhibition, held at the Jewish Museum from January to March of 1960, and then at André Emmerich Gallery from March to April 1960. The painting later traveled to prestigious venues such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, among others. In the 1980s, Acres was acquired directly from the artist by actor Steve Martin and has changed hands only once since then, when it was acquired by Los Angeles collectors and LACMA benefactors Sandra and Jacob Terner in 1995. For nearly three decades, Acres has remained in the same private collection and now makes its auction debut.


    The present work installed at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, January 16, 1998–January 31, 1999. Image: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

     “The blazing yellow and aquamarine of ‘Acres’, another painting of 1959, not to mention its royal blue and red, explode upon the viewer as if the artist were not only committed to their intrinsic beauties but feared that anything less than such a deep-dyed commitment would allow an unspecified but horrible night to return. Only from darkness could brightness come about.” i
    —Alexander Nemerov

    Executed in 1959, Acres holds a pivotal place within the broader context of Helen Frankenthaler's six-decade career, demonstrating her capacity to surpass the prevailing modes of expression within the distinctly American painting style that thrived in New York City after World War II. John Elderfield, a foremost historian of Frankenthaler's work, aptly describes her paintings from 1959–60 as “think-tough, paint-tough,” underscoring the scale of the works and the gestural, muscular nature of her process. Elderfield asserts that, in contrast to her early 1950s works where she worked against the grain of New York School abstract painting, the late 1950s paintings, which visibly reveal the physicality to her painting process, demonstrated both her personal and artistic strength. He explains, “Clearly Helen wouldn’t have become the artist she was if she hadn’t had a personal toughness and drive—she was someone who very much wanted her own way, was strong about what she did and believed in what she did. But in the 1959–60 period she not only thought tough but also painted visibly tough-looking paintings.”ii

    “I tend to side-develop, not to hang on, but in seeming to side-develop that’s the way I really show my mark and continuity.”
    —Helen Frankenthaler iii

    In this monumental canvas, measuring approximately seven and a half by eight feet, Frankenthaler skillfully weaves together a visual tapestry that recalls the landscapes and pseudo-figuration found in her earlier iconic works, such as Jacob’s Ladder, 1957, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Winter Hunt, 1958. In Acres, Frankenthaler invites viewers into an imaginative tableau where sun, sky, and field converge in a dynamic interplay of color, suggestion, and form. The canvas, loosely grid-like in the exchange of vertical and horizontal marks, expresses a tension between background and foreground, without any sense of traditional illusionism. The picture is expansive and lyrical, full of opposing tendencies and forms that are tangible but not specific, as well as an airiness achieved through the intentional interplay of pigment and bare canvas. It is a historic painting, exemplary of Frankenthaler's experimentation during a transitional period in her practice, and hums with layered complexity and a vibrant interplay of blues, blacks, and red accents, along with pastoral green, rose pink, and sunlit yellow hues.


    Acres signifies a departure from Frankenthaler’s early work, introducing bold color and staining techniques that anticipate her atmospheric, purely abstract compositions of the 1960s onward. It also marks her return to gestural improvisation after years spent refining her signature “soak-stain” technique. With its vistas of pure color and absence of drawn lines, Acres reflects Frankenthaler's move towards what critic B. H. Friedman described as the “total color image” characteristic of her later work.iv The thicker application of paint in Acres facilitates a harmonious exploration of density and collision, showcasing Frankenthaler's distinctive mark-making approach, characterized by a synthesis of organic and controlled movement and form. Describing the influence of Frankenthaler’s work from this period, critic Grace Glueck notes that it introduced a fresh, expansive quality to the painted canvas and recognizes her soak-stain technique as “releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism.v To use the artist’s own terminology denoting strokes that are spontaneous, genuine, and uncalculated, Frankenthaler's markings in Acres are deliberately “unslick” in such a way that reinforces the work’s naïve power, imparting a tangible presence that beckons the viewer to engage with the work on a profound level. In the Summer 1959 edition of Artnews, responding to Irving Sandler’s survey for artists asking, “Is there a new Academy?” Frankenthaler offered the following insight into her philosophy at the time, saying, “There can be a slickness of the unslick as well as of the obviously slick. The hand has become knowing enough to realize that authentic paintings are not “perfect” … The true beauty of unwieldiness only comes through when it is a necessary, inevitable part of the imagination.”vi


    Jackson Pollock, Number 14, 1951. Tate Modern, London. Image: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2024 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    In the fluid nature of Frankenthaler’s “soak-stain” technique lies a distinct echo of the Impressionists' emphasis on capturing fleeting atmospheric effects. In Acres, this connection forms a lineage reminiscent of Berthe Morisot's pursuit of atmospheric landscapes. Frankenthaler demonstrates what Clement Greenberg termed “an art of maximum saturation,” sharing resonance with Morisot’s commitment to capturing the essence of a scene through the expressive use of color.vii In this vein, Acres also reflects the pioneering spirit of Jackson Pollock, specifically his black and white figurative works of 1951–52. In fact, Frankenthaler expressly cited Pollock’s Number 14, 1951, Tate Modern, London, as her starting point for elaborating an allusive landscape image.viii Indeed, the arching deep blue forms, yellow orb, and horizontal and vertical brown striations in Acres distinctly echo the composition of Pollock’s Number 14.


    In Acres, Frankenthaler infuses the composition with dynamic tension, so that it is alive with a sense of spontaneity and movement. This tension, echoing the interplay between flatness and depth, abstraction, and recognizable imagery, not only characterizes Frankenthaler's oeuvre but also served as a catalyst for the artistic evolution of her contemporaries. Artist Morris Louis declared that Frankenthaler “was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.”ix


    Acres represents a particular moment of becoming when Frankenthaler was just starting to be recognized as a prominent figure in the international art scene. In 1959, not only was she invited to participate in the second edition of documenta, held in Kassel, Germany, but she went on to win first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris that year. It was during this time that she joined André Emmerich’s roster, who would go on to show her work in New York for the next four decades, the present work included. Acres also was made on the heels of Frankenthaler's marriage in 1958 to fellow artist Robert Motherwell. During their honeymoon in Spain and France, the artists initially worked side by side in their hotel room. Subsequently, they each occupied studios in close proximity within a rented villa in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, creating paintings that subtly alluded to the places they had visited together. Critic Roberta Smith suggests that Frankenthaler's stylistic shift towards a more material Abstract Expressionism, exemplified in Acres, was potentially influenced by her recent union. She notes, “With its dark overhanging shapes, Acres may reflect the input of Robert Motherwell, whom Ms. Frankenthaler married in 1958…”x


    Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 1958-61. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift (by exchange) of Miss Anna Warren Ingersoll and partial gift of the Dedalus Foundation, Inc., 1998, 1998-156-1, Artwork: © 2024 Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, New York

    Whatever the reason, upon her return to New York at the end of the summer of 1959, Frankenthaler’s work underwent a significant transformation, which critic John Elderfield described as “a shift from the soft tonalism that surrounds her prismatic colors to something crisper, brighter and more graphically stamped.”xi It was during this period of flourishing that Acres was created, coinciding with Frankenthaler’s preparation for her retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1960, marking a pivotal moment in both her career and personal life. In his essay for the accompanying exhibition catalogue, the critic and poet Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote about the courage demonstrated in Frankenthaler’s recent work, saying “She is willing to risk the big gesture, to employ huge formats so that her essentially intimate revelations may be more fully explored and delineated.”xii O’Hara continued, “She is willing to declare erotic and sentimental pre-occupations full-scale and with full conviction.”xiii

    “When a picture demands blank canvas to breathe a certain way, I leave it.”
    —Helen Frankenthaler speaking to Artforum in 1965xiv

    Acres also encapsulates a season in Frankenthaler's artistic journey during which she delved into the realm of blank “breathing” space. This experimentation aimed to isolate the strongest and most effective elements within her compositions until she achieved the ability to phase out these vacant areas entirely. Remarking on the visual and spatial feel of her paintings, Frankenthaler has said, “I frequently leave areas of raw, unprimed canvas unpainted. That ‘negative’ space has just as active a role as the ‘positive’ painted space. The negative spaces maintain shapes of their own and are not empty.”xv


    The inclusion of Acres in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's major touring exhibition After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, which travelled across three countries between 1998-1999, attests to the work’s enduring significance. In a statement concluding her review of the exhibition for ARTnews, Maragaret Moorman determined that, “In Acres, from 1959, a work of clear, bold pinks and yellows and a thoughtfully interrupted arc of black, Frankenthaler appears to have renewed her commitment to abstract harmonies. We see her stronger, more mature, and completely secure in her uniqueness.”xvi Moreover, Roberta Smith's selection of Acres as the only image reproduced in her New York Times review of the show, entitled “Showing the Way to The Vanguard at 23,” emphasizes the painting's prominence within the larger context of Frankenthaler's career. This recognition underscores the enduring relevance of Acres as a seminal work that not only shaped the trajectory of Frankenthaler's artistic journey but also left an indelible mark on the evolution of abstract painting in the 20th century.

    Collector’s Digest


    • There are about two dozen paintings by Frankenthaler from 1957 to 1961 that are currently held in public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum, New York, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut, and others. 


    Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, New York, 2021, pp. 192-193, 201. 

    ii Jon Elderfield, quoted in Lauren Mahony, "Helen Frankenthaler," Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2017, online.

    iii Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler,” Artforum, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 1965, online.

    iv B. H. Friedman titled an essay on Frankenthaler’s work “Towards a Total Color Image,” ARTnews, Vol. 65, No. 4, Summer 1966, pp. 31-33, 67-68.  

    v Grace Glueck, “Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83,” The New York Times, December 27, 2011, online

    vi Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Irving Sandler, ed., “Is There a New Academy?” ARTnews, Vol. 58, No. 4, Summer 1959, p. 34, 59.

    vii Clement Greenberg, quoted Alfred Frankfurter, ed., “Impress of Impressionism,” ARTnews, Vol. 55, No. 3, May 1956, p. 40. 

    viii Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler,” Artforum, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 1965, online.

    ix Morris Louis, quoted in Gerald Nordland, The Washington Color Painters, exh. Cat., New York, 1965, p.12.

    x Roberta Smith, “Showing the Way to the Vanguard at 23,” The New York Times, January 16, 1998, p. B35 (illustrated)

    xi John Elderfield, quoted in Harry N. Abrams, Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959, New York, 2013, p. 39.

    xii Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, “Helen Frankenthaler: Museo di Palazzo Grimani,” Artforum, Vol. 58, No. 4, December, 2019, online.

    xiii Ibid.

    xiv Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Henry Geldzahler, “An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler,” Artforum, Vol. 4, No. 2, October 1965, online.

    xv Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in J. Brown, After Mountains and Sea: Helen Frankenthaler 1956-1959, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 41.

    xvi Margaret Moorman, “Up Now: Helen Frankenthaler. Guggenheim Museum Through May 3,” ARTnews, vol. 97, no. 3, March 1998, p. 171

    • Provenance

      Collection Mr. Steve Martin (acquired directly from the artist in the 1980s)
      James Goodman Gallery, Inc., New York
      Jacob and Sandra Terner, Los Angeles (acquired from the above in April 1995)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, The Jewish Museum, Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, January 26–March 2, 1960, no. 17, p. 9
      New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler, March 28–April 23, 1960
      Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Smithsonian Institution, The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York, May 22–September 21, 1980, no. 59, pp. 102, 110 (illustrated, p. 102)
      Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains de Bordeaux, "Depuis la couleur" 1958/1964. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, January 23–March 21, 1981, pp. 14, 19 (illustrated, p. 19)
      New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum; Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, January 16, 1998–January 31, 1999, no. 13, pp. 10, 78-79 (illustrated, p. 79; detail illustrated, p. 10)

    • Literature

      Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler, New York, 1971, no. 64, p. 135 (illustrated)
      Sarah Paley, “Hanging out with Steve Martin,” GQ, November 1983, vol. 53, pp. 210, 212 (Steve Martin with the present work in his home illustrated, p. 212)
      John Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 131, 137, 397, 438 (illustrated, p. 131)
      Françoise S. Puniello and Halina R. Rusak, Abstract Expressionist Women Painters: An Annotated Bibliography, Maryland and London, 1996, p. 93
      Roberta Smith, “Showing the Way to the Vanguard at 23,” The New York Times, January 16, 1998, p. B35 (detail illustrated)
      Hilton Kramer, “Gaga Over Guggenheim’s Frankenthaler Exhibition,” Observer, February 2, 1998, online
      Margaret Moorman, “Up Now: Helen Frankenthaler. Guggenheim Museum Through May 3,” ARTnews, vol. 97, no. 3, March 1998, p. 171
      Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, New York, 2021, pp. 192-193, 201

Property from the Terner Family Collection, Los Angeles



signed “Frankenthaler” lower right
oil on canvas
92 7/8 x 94 1/4 in. (235.9 x 239.4 cm)
Painted in 1959.

Full Cataloguing

$1,800,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for $3,690,000

Contact Specialist

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

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024