The 1970s were a particularly successful period for Helen Frankenthaler. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. would organize a major traveling exhibition of her work and she would also have presentations of her work at other major museums, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Jacksonville Art Museum. Her reputation led to invitations to teach at Harvard University and Radcliffe College and she was awarded honorary degrees from Yale University and Bard College. It was also a period during which she would demonstrate remarkable innovation in her signature “soak-stain” technique, and during the Thanksgiving weekend of 1973, Frankenthaler’s restless inquisitiveness led her to begin working on one of the most remarkable series of her career. Over the course of the holiday she produced a succession of ceramic tiles upon whose surface she took her practice to new heights and confirmed her role as one of the most innovative artists of the postwar period. These chromatic and dynamic compositions demonstrated her continued interest in investigating how the surface of the work can be integrated to become an integral part of the work itself, and not just act as the support. Of the ‘Thanksgiving Day’ series, the present example is regarded as among the most accomplished, as the generous nature of the composition and the skill and dexterity of Frankenthaler’s application of the painterly glazes all display the artist’s natural ability with different materials and processes. Frankenthaler was often at her most productive during her time away from New York and the relaxed atmosphere of the holiday period allowed her the freedom to think. “It’s the time I am totally creating work,” she once said. “I am obsessed and the energy flows, the adrenaline flows, the ideas flow.”
According to the art historian John Elderfield, Frankenthaler was inspired to work in ceramics after admiring Joan Miró and Josep Lloréns Artigas’ ceramic wall at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. She may also have been inspired by her memories of the Léger ceramic tile composition at Saint-Paul-de-Vence that had so enthused her during a visit back in the 1950s (J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 244). The ‘U’-shaped composition evokes her square shaped canvases of the 1950s and also her works produced in Provincetown in 1961. Working with a ceramic surface allowed Frankenthaler to appropriate the non-porous properties to heighten the physical effects of her brushwork and pourings. So, instead of the paint soaking into the canvas, her glazes sat on top of the support, sometimes bleeding into their neighbors, sometimes keeping their integrity intact but allowing us to view—possibly for the first time—her remarkable fluid brushwork.