A large-scale, magisterial work, Helen Frankenthaler’s Zarathustra typifies the beauty, elegance and lyricism that are the signature qualities of this artist who founded the highly influential mid-twentieth century Color Field School of painting. The evocative title conjures up a mysterious figure, yet one which remains resolutely elusive. On the topic of assigning titles to her paintings, Frankenthaler remarked “I usually name them for an image that comes out of the pictures” (E.A. Carmean, Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989 p. 38). Possibly the title here makes reference to a composition by Richard Strauss, as other works by the artist have made reference to the worlds of classical music, such as a 1987 painting named after the eighteenth century Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti.
Delicate, glowing violet and green tonalities freely wash across the canvas surface, flowing, emerging and receding, the liquid nature of the paint at the moment when it was first applied still quite apparent in the finished work. The colors are wonderfully various, ranging from deep, fully saturated hues to colors that are almost transparent, giving off a glow close to luminous whiteness. Deeper blue, black, and brown tones set off the more ethereal hues. Color is the very heart of this work. Frankenthaler gave color a new independence, allowing it to float free, not tethered by representation or gesture. The artist once remarked, ''There is no 'always.’ No formula. There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.'' (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in “Helen Frankenthaler, Back to the Future,” New York Times, April 27, 2003).
Zarathustra, although it was accomplished in the medium of acrylic paint, expresses the aqueous qualities so characteristic of watercolor, an effect Frankenthaler deliberately sought. As with watercolor, the tonalities are darker here, lighter there, of varying opacity determined by the thickness of the paint. “She gained what watercolorists had always had—freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness” (E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 2000, p. 218). Translucence, luminosity, opacity, staining: qualities typically associated with watercolor, are all on brilliant display here. Setting these off, harder-edged shapes—rectangular blocks of color, seemingly applied with a brush rather than poured or washed across the surface—define the canvas’ top and bottom margins, as well as its right boundary and left bottom corner. These more sharply defined forms seem to contain the flow of paint to the center of the work, where thin washes of color merge into one another. A restless innovator, “[o]ver more than half a century, Frankenthaler remained a fearless explorer in the studio, investigating a remarkable range of media. She adopted acrylic paint, on canvas and paper, early on, reveling in its intensity even when thinned” (K. Wilkin, "Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011),” American Art, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2012, p. 103).
Zarathustra balances volume and void, weight and weightlessness. Darker at its peripheries, the painting lightens toward its center. The colors merging yet brightening, the center of the painting expresses a luminous, open feeling, drawing the eye toward it. One can trace the horizontal and vertical movements of the paint, lending the work a wonderful feeling of combined stillness and movement. Frankenthaler’s work projects a relaxed, spontaneous feeling even as it encompasses complex possibilities, from joyful to reflective. Art historian Barbara Rose observed that Frankenthaler had a gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions” (B. Rose, quoted in “Helen Frankenthaler, Back to the Future,” The New York Times, April 27, 2003).
Emerging out of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler became one of the most significant painters of the second half of the twentieth-century, defining a new style characterized by a de-emphasis on brushstroke and gesture in favor of areas of unbroken surface made up of large flat areas of solid color. The goal was to make color itself the subject. Frankenthaler’s poured paint technique produced ethereal washes of color, her paint not resting on top of the canvas but rather soaking into the very weave of the material, mingling with and becoming a part of it.
Departing from the bold and fierce, slashing brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler chose to emphasize the flat surface of the canvas itself (so evident in the solid washes of color that make up the present work) over the effort to use the surface to construct an illusion of depth, In doing so, she compelled the viewer to savor the very nature of paint on canvas. Her work became an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, offering a new way to define and use color to those artists who were to define the Minimalist movement of the sixties.
Frankenthaler’s work asks that the viewer focus their attention toward the very nature of paint on canvas. The surface of the canvas—and the play of colors across it—are Frankenthaler’s true subject. “The feeling-tone her paintings have projected has been the serene and beautiful, achieved by the insightful control over the elements of form: floating areas of color; occasional fountains, spurts, jets of color thrown against bare canvas; hard-edge panels or curtains of bright flat non-naturalistic color” (E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 2000, p. 208).