Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Las Mayas

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Las Mayas
signed with initials and dated 'HF 58' (lower right)
oil on canvas
100 x 43 1/4 in. (254 x 109.9 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
Galleria dell’Ariete, Milan
Mr. Luciano Pistoi, Turin
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1978
B. Butler, "Movie Stars and Other Members of the Cast," Art International, v. 4, nos. 2-3, February-March 1960, p. 55 (installation view illustrated).
H. H. Arnason and H. Read, "Dialogue on Modern U.S. Painting," Artnews, v. 59, May 1960, pp. 34 and 36 (illustrated).
J. Ashbery, "Paris Notes," Art International, v. 5, no. 9, 20 November 1961, p. 50 (illustrated).
B. H. Friedman, "Towards the Tonal Color Image," Artnews, v. 65, no. 4, Summer 1966, p. 67.
B. Rose, Frankenthaler, New York, 1972, pl. 60 (illustrated).
L. Touraine, "Helen Frankenthaler, le geste et le savoir," Art Press International, March 1977, p. 22 (illustrated).
J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 126, 129 and 137 (illustrated in color).
Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color: Paintings 1962-1963, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2014, p. 8, fig. 1 (installation view illustrated).
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler, March-April 1959.
Kassel, Museum Fridericianum, II. Documenta '59: Kunst nach 1945, International Exhibition, July-October 1959, p. 164, no. 2 (illustrated).
New York, The Jewish Museum, Helen Frankenthaler, January-March 1960, pp. 9 and 11, no. 15 (illustrated).
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 60 American Painters: Abstract Expressionist Painting of the Fifties, April-May 1960, p. 22, no. 19 (illustrated).
Los Angeles, Everett Ellin Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler First West Coast Show, March-April 1961 (illustrated).
Paris, Galerie Lawrence, Helen Frankenthaler, October-November 1961.
Milan, Galleria dell'Ariete, Frankenthaler, March 1962, no. 4 (illustrated).
Paris, Salles de la Fondation de Paris Nationale des Arts Plastiques et Graphiques, Biennale de Paris: une anthologie: 1959-1967, June-October 1977 (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Detroit Institute of Arts, Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, May 1989-September 1990, pp. 6, 8, 24 and 25, fig. 1 (illustrated in color).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, January 1998-January 1999, p. 93, no. 10 (illustrated in color).
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959, March-April 2013, pp. 12, 101-102, 104-105, 118 and 128 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Helen Frankenthaler’s Las Mayas is an important, well-known painting of the artist’s early career, having been widely exhibited, discussed and illustrated from the time of its creation in the winter of 1958. Generally regarded as one of the most notable paintings of its era, Las Mayas is nothing short of groundbreaking. With its lavish display of brilliant, shimmering color that vigorously bubbles forth in an upward-rush of momentum, the painting is a wonderful illustration of the innovative technique that propelled the artist to fame as a leading figure of the Color Field movement. In a riotous display of effervescent color, Frankenthaler lavishes attention to the painting’s surface, using unprimed cotton duck canvas and thinned-down oils that have been pooled, dripped, splashed and spread, in a cascade of color, texture and line. Las Mayas ushers forth the stained canvas technique that—famously—created a radical breach of Abstract Expressionist gesturalism in favor of thin pools of liquescent color that soaked into the very warp and weft of the canvas itself. Painted when she was just thirty-one years old, Las Mayas is a profound encapsulation of the artist’s best technique.

Frankenthaler’s title references Goya’s Majas on a Balcony, which she would have seen in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it relates to the three months that the artist spent in Spain and France during her honeymoon with the artist Robert Motherwell, to whom she was married in April of that year. While in Spain, Frankenthaler visited the Prado in Madrid and later viewed the prehistoric cave paintings at Altamira and Lascaux. In late June, she and Motherwell rented a villa in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a seaside resort-town just South of Biarritz, where they both painted prolifically. In a letter to Grace Hartigan dated July 8th, Frankenthaler described: “We’ve both been working a great deal...In three days I started and kept going like one possessed and did a few paintings that I like. All the feelings and ideas I’d been storing up poured out of me and I couldn’t get the materials to fly fast enough” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted J. Elderfield, Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2013, p. 99). Indeed, the trip has been described a “turning point” in both artist’s careers, and upon returning to New York at the end of the summer, Frankenthaler’s work underwent a real flourishing, which the critic John Elderfield recently described as “a shift from the soft tonalism that surrounds her prismatic colors to something crisper, brighter and more graphically stamped” (J. Elderfield, quoted in ibid., New York, 2013, p. 39).

Typical to her work at this time, Las Mayas displays a lavish arrangement of electrifying color pooled, splashed and spread upon the rough, unprimed surface of the raw canvas duck. Wide areas of unfinished canvas are left unpainted, held in suspension against Frankenthaler’s painterly forms. Frankenthaler’s technical range is broad and virtuosic, as an astonishing variety of technique reveals itself in drips, stains, splashes and strokes. An upward cascade of liquescent green pigment issues forth in an effervescent display, not unlike the bursting of some great Baroque fountain, while areas of earthen brown and dark black recall the Spanish influence of Goya and his Majas. Brushy areas of crisp orange enliven the composition, some of which still display the turpentine-halo of their thinned-down technique. Near the upper register, a wide swath of molten brown hovers in cloud-like formation, with a circular opening that’s utterly cave-like. A dramatic sense of upward movement pervades the piece, recalling other vertically-oriented paintings like Jacob’s Ladder of 1957 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

In Las Mayas, Frankenthaler’s stained pigment soaks into its unprimed surface, to become one with the warp and weft of the canvas itself. Her brilliant, painterly forms are balanced by the broad areas of negative space that result from the sections of the canvas left unpainted. The result is a strong feeling of deep, recessional space as Frankenthaler’s colorful forms are left to play within these unpainted white areas: “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” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in J. Brown, After Mountains and Sea: Helen Frankenthaler 1956-1959, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 41). Impossibly, the lush green splashes of the painting’s central register appear to drip upward in a foamy spray of effervescence that some critics have described as “sensuous” and “erotic.”

Upon further examination, it becomes clear that Frankenthaler originally began the painting in a different orientation. Turning the painting upside-down, the original intention of the aqueous green forms is revealed as the drips slowly succumb to gravity’s force to drip down the surface of the canvas. Another miraculous discovery emerges from this upside-down orientation, in which Frankenthaler renders the four figures of Goya’s Mayas in black outline, the most obvious of which is the cloaked figure in black hood and scarf, whose eyes and nose are visible in the lower left quadrant of the painting (or the upper-right when turned upside-down). The balcony railing of Goya’s picture is still faintly perceived in the faint horizontal line that bisects the canvas horizontally near its midpoint.
Frankenthaler based several works of this era on Old Master paintings, which she used as a jumping-off point rather than as a literal reference. As Frankenthaler herself remarked, Las Mayas was painted “as an homage to Goya… an incidental but useful takeoff—not a parody” She described: “The ideas, the format, and the colors in the Goya fueled my own ideas.” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in E.A. Carmean, Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989, p. 24) Indeed, in Las Mayas, Frankenthaler’s enigmatic rendering is like a tantalizing puzzle; while recognizable figures appear to emerge on one hand, they are never fully realized and sink back into utter abstraction on the other. John Elderfield has remarked upon the push-and-pull between figuration and abstraction that is so acutely felt in these paintings, which he describes in this way: “[Frankenthaler’s forms] enable the mind to have sensations of all the various qualities in the objects to which images refer...without specifically resembling objects at all” (J. Elderfield, quoted in ibid., New York, 2013, p. 19).

Indeed, Frankenthaler strikes a delicate balance between figuration and all-out abstraction in Las Mayas, and the brilliance of this—and her paintings of this era—have only recently achieved the critical recognition that they so deserve. Remarkably, she initiated the canvas in one orientation and then flipped it over to begin anew, creating a remarkable symmetry and balance, a brilliant encapsulation of her stained-canvas technique that can be viewed both upside-down and right-side up. Shortly after it was created, Las Mayas was featured in the artist’s first solo exhibition at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1959 and a year later, was included in her retrospective at the Jewish Museum. It has subsequently been illustrated and discussed in journals, interviews and exhibitions, as critics and curators alike praised its meaning and impact.

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