Executed on a grand scale, Helen Frankenthaler’s Beach Horse of 1959 is a brilliant iteration of her signature soak-stain technique. In this, the only known shaped canvas ever produced by the artist, the sheer variety of painterly application is astounding. Brushed, stained, dripped or splattered, the thinned-down pigment melds into the flat canvas surface. Delicate passages of mossy green, shimmering turquoise and bright blue coalesce alongside earthen browns and strokes of red, all of which are interspersed by passages of bright white. To the left, an empty white field provides a visual foil to the sumptuous imagery of its painterly neighbor, which is sectioned off by strokes of bright yellow. The period in which Beach Horse was created has been described as one of Frankenthaler’s most productive, coming on the heels of her marriage to the painter Robert Motherwell in 1958 and their extensive honeymoon spent traveling through France and Spain. Frankenthaler selected Beach Horse for her first solo exhibition at André Emmerich Gallery in March of 1959, and again in 1960 for her retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, where it was displayed along with Mountains and Sea, and several other key works from this seminal period. Having been acquired by the artist Frank Stella, the painting was executed at a time when Stella himself was exploring the shape of the traditional canvas, removing sections he deemed superfluous.
Of paramount importance in Frankenthaler’s work is her keen sense of balance, in which considerable areas of blank canvas give voice to the compelling imagery contained therein. In Beach Horse, she creates a unique and masterful composition where passages of white are used to buttress the abstract forms she creates, as familiar shapes emerge only to disappear back into themselves. Its horizontal format imparts a feeling of landscape, and Frankenthaler uses strong diagonals to bring the viewer deeper into the painting, playing on the techniques for establishing perspectival distance. Slender strokes of thinned down and splattered red paint rush upwards, compelling the eye further back into recessional space. The entire scene is viewed as if through an archway, where subtle areas of mossy green and atmospheric clouds of turquoise and gray create a rounded opening, as if the entire scene has been viewed through the mouth of an immense cave. Right of center, a passage of yellow and cobalt blue resembles the setting sun over a body of water—presumably the beach to which the title corresponds.
In Beach Horse, Frankenthaler’s abstract imagery both confirms and denies any resemblance to the natural world, creating a tantalizing puzzle for the viewer to unravel. Using thinned down pigment as a way of drawing, she delineates forms that tease the viewer’s imagination; they do not sit on the canvas surface and pretend to be something else, but rather meld into it, joining the flat plane of the two-dimensional painting. This sense of push and pull is one of the hallmarks of Frankenthaler’s work, a fundamental aspect resulting from her early studies with the artist Hans Hofmann. It also corresponds with the principles of Modernist painting espoused by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg, with whom she was engaged in a romance before marrying Robert Motherwell in 1958.
The art historian and former Museum of Modern Art curator John Elderfield has called the period of 1957 – 1959 the most productive, in terms of its quality, of Frankenthaler’s career. These works are seen to have developed from the techniques she honed while painting Mountains and Sea, her breakthrough of 1952. Having seen Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings in the early 1950s, Frankenthaler learned that she could free the canvas from its stretcher, placing it directly on the floor of the studio and pouring thinned-down oil paint in the same manner that Pollock had. “Taking paintings off the easel introduced a whole new space and manner of painting,” she said. “Easel painting had been more of a window than a wall. Once freed from the easel, and not confined to an edge, corner, or particular size, your vision can go on forever” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1950-59, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 44). She created ever larger works in which much of the unfinished canvas was allowed to exist alongside the subtle forms she created by slowly pouring pigment and allowing it to soak into the fabric surface. She employed chance and control in equal measure, though she eschewed much of the heroic gestures and emotional angst of Abstract Expressionism, creating instead a more finely-tuned, lyrical style that allowed her to forge her own, unique path.
In 1959, the same year that Beach Horse was created, Frank Stella had embarked upon his iconic series of Black Paintings, where he applied concentric bands of black enamel onto unprimed canvas. Using a wide brush, he applied thin coats of black paint, leaving a hair’s breadth of bare canvas between each successive band. Now recognized as pinnacles of Minimalist painting, Stella’s Black Paintings made manifest his belief that painting should not pretend to be anything other than “a flat surface with paint on it—nothing more” (F. Stella, quoted in D. Bourdon, “A New Cut in Art: Oddly Shaped Canvases by Frank Stella Challenge Viewers,” Life, 19 January 1968, n.p.). This sentiment dovetails neatly with Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique, in which the thinned down pigment became impregnated within the fiber of the canvas material. It is therefore not surprising, then, that Stella would gravitate toward Beach Horse, especially given the unique properties of its oblique angle and its clever blend of Minimalist and Abstract Expressionist gesture. “I always had in my mind that I wanted to have a painting of Helen’s,” Stella has said. When asked why he gravitated toward the present work, he replied, “I liked the painting a lot … the raw canvas, the empty space, you know, put together with the other space that’s so filled up.… The painting is terrific” (F. Stella, quoted in an interview conducted by Christie’s, February 2019).
The year Beach Horse was painted Frankenthaler had come full circle, creating highly complex paintings full of splashed and splattered paint rendered on increasingly larger scale that rivaled the bravura and gravitas of both de Kooning and Pollock. She had been featured in Time magazine, and had her work acquired by major American museums, including the Museum of Modern Art. Her paintings featured in several prestigious exhibitions that year, including documenta in Kassel, the São Paulo Biennial and in the first Paris Biennale where she won first prize. By 1961, however, her style would change dramatically, in favor of the colorful abstractions loosely defined on bare canvas for which the Color Field School became known. “A true work of art grows on you,” Frankenthaler has said in an interview that can be seen to sum up the technique she spent a lifetime pursuing. “It communicates order and truth.… Great art is a manifestation of that magic, that indescribable thing that is the gift. It had to be created. That’s part of the gift, and the strong will of art. The making of art starts with chaos and is resolved into order, which can make it beautiful” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in Ibid., pp. 44-45).