Helen Frankenthaler - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "A line, color, shapes, spaces, all do one thing for and within themselves, and yet do something else, in relation to everything that is going on within the four sides [of the canvas]. A line is a line, but [also] is a color... It does this here, but that there. The canvas surface is flat and yet the space extends for miles. What a lie, what trickery—how beautiful is the very idea of painting."
    —Helen Frankenthaler
    Painted in 1959 at the beginning of her career, Helen Frankenthaler’s Brown Bird showcases her prowess in the gestural improvisation of Abstract Expressionism. Before transitioning towards a more quiet and calligraphic style of painting, Frankenthaler was a leading member of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists. Predating her soak-stain technique, Brown Bird belongs to a lesser-known group of paintings created between 1959 and 1962, distinguished by their powerful and active brushstrokes. In contrast to her color field paintings, which are known for their subtle use of color, the paintings of this period are expressive and raw.


    Frankenthaler in her studio at Third Avenue and East 94th Street, New York, with Mediterranean Thoughts (1960, in progress, left) and Figure with Thoughts (1960, in progress, center), March 1960. Image: Tony Vaccaro 

    "think-tough, paint-tough."
    —John Elderfield, borrowing the words from poet James Schuyler to describe Helen Frankenthaler’s work in the late 1950s
    Recognized as one of the most important female American artists of the 20th century, Frankenthaler has been named a leader in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. She first entered the New York scene in 1950, when Adolph Gottlieb selected one of her paintings to be included in Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. By 1959, the year she painted this work, her paintings had a regular presence in exhibitions around the world alongside some of the most important mid-century artists.


    The Many Facets of Frankenthaler's 1950s Paintings


    Curator John Elderfield has identified several distinct periods and styles within Frankenthaler’s work from the 1950s. While she started the decade with her first soak-stain paintings, marked by Mountains and Sea, 1952, by 1954 her technique became more material, and in turn, more like that of her peers. By 1959, she returned to a purely Abstract Expressionist vocabulary,i as is the case in Brown Bird. Many have attributed this to Willem de Kooning’s famous exhibition that took place that year at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, which sold out on the first day—one of the highest points of 1950s Abstract Expressionism. Others believe that another motivation for this change was Frankenthaler’s marriage to Robert Motherwell in 1958. Regardless of the reason, her early 1950s paintings still stood apart from those of her peers for their more emotional compositions. In an effort to assert her position in a male-dominated movement, she truly proved her personal toughness and drive in these works.ii


    "At some point, I recognized a birdlike shape - I was ready for it - and I developed it from there."
    —Helen Frankenthaler
    Brown Bird has a vast array of painterly forms in its composition: dramatic lines, pools of colors that spread across the canvas, and a rich violet brown wash that one could only relate to a bird, as the title of the work suggests. In the background, a white expanse creates negative space, emphasizing the vibrantly colored brushstrokes, a key characteristic of the works she was creating at the time. Coming from the esteemed collection of Philadelphia lawyer Jack R. Bershad and his wife, artist Helen Bershad, the present work is an exquisite example of a defining period in Frankenthaler’s career—a painting that exists in a league of its own.

  • Property from the Estate of Jack R. Bershad 


    Over nearly six decades, Philadelphia lawyer Jack R. Bershad and his wife, artist Helen Bershad, amassed an impressive collection of art and ceramics. Phillips is thrilled to be offering a selection of the American and Post-War masterworks in our 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale this season. Most of these works were acquired soon after they were made, making this a rare chance to acquire works that have remained in the same collection for more than 30 years. An artist in her own right, Helen Bershad was inspired by many of the artists in hers and Jack’s collection, citing Helen Frankenthaler as one of her heroes. Of choosing the painting Brown Bird from 1959, she said, “I had to have something that she did. It was very important to me. A lot of people didn’t like her work at that time, but I did, and I was right...” Such persistence defines the collection, as Jack and Helen went searching in galleries and auctions throughout the 1970s and 1980s for the best examples of 20th century art. This included one of Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Landscape works from 1975, which Helen considered “a part of our marriage, of how we talk, how we discuss things.” Two impressive sculptures by Anthony Caro and exceptional American works on paper by John Marin and Max Weber fill out the collection, alongside one of Helen’s own large-scale paintings from 1980—a beautiful and expressive field of blues and pinks coalescing on canvas. Together, this selection of works acquired by Helen and Jack demonstrates their passion for collecting, and for each other. As Helen aptly states, “[they just] wanted to be surrounded by good music and good art.”



    John Elderfield in “Frankenthaler: John Elderfield and Lauren Mahony discuss Helen Frankenthaler in the years 1959-1962, a period of daring experimentation and innovation,” Gagosian, Fall 2017, online
    ii Ibid.

    • Provenance

      André Emmerich Gallery, New York
      Mr. And Mrs. Robert B. Mayer, Winnetka (acquired from the above in 1960)
      Sotheby’s Parke Bernet Inc., New York, October 26, 1972, lot 11
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Collects Art Since 1940, September 28–November 30, 1986, p. 70 (illustrated)
      Delaware Art Museum, Abstract Expressionism and Beyond: Motherwell's Circle, June 22–September 12, 1999

    • Literature

      Barbara Butler, “Movie Stars and other members of the cast,” Art International, vol. 4, nos. 2–3, February–March 1960, pp. 51–56 (illustrated, p. 55)
      Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler, New York, 1971, no. 71, n.p. (illustrated)

The Estate of Jack R. Bershad


Brown Bird

signed and dated "Frankenthaler 59" lower center
oil on canvas
48 3/8 x 50 1/4 in. (122.9 x 127.6 cm)
Painted in 1959.

Full Cataloguing

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $504,000

Contact Specialist

Annie Dolan
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
+1 212 940 1288

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 16 November 2022