Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Property from a German Foundation
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Portrait of Margaretha Trip

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Portrait of Margaretha Trip
signed 'Frankenthaler' (lower left); signed again, titled and dated 'Frankenthaler 1980 "Portrait of Margarita Trip"' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
90 ¼ x 57 ½ in. (229.2 x 146.1 cm.)
Painted in 1980.
Knoedler Gallery, London
J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 310 and 313 (illustrated).
London, Knoedler Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler, April 1981, n.p. (illustrated).
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neue Pinakothek, 2008-2016 (on loan).

Lot Essay

By the end of the 1970s, Helen Frankenthaler had amassed a repertoire of techniques and markings that established her as among the most brilliant and inventive painters of the period. At the end of the decade, she began to innovate further with near monochromatic works in which sponges move paint across the surface, overlapping and folding it in broad sweeps of atmospheric, gesture-like passages. She also recaptures an earlier impulse in the close paraphrasing of Old Masters. In 1960, for example, she drew to astonishing affect in oil on paper, a likeness of Carel Fabritius’s Linnet (Goldfinch) of 1654. Other works from that time include iterations of her own works from which she elaborates a more abstract image from one that is nearly representational. Pink Bird Figure and Pink Bird Figure II are strong examples. What we observe here is the strong role paint application plays, an application that foregrounds pigment in and of itself over the scaffolding on which drawing is built. Drawing is line, line bounds area—principally color areas. What Frankenthaler does with both these works is create color—the whiteness of the opaque as it diffuses into transparency streaming down the canvas; smokey ghosts of brush strokes; smears, drips of dense black, rose, green, and violet that dissolve in an ethereality that is almost uncanny. This is color that is in a sense freed from bounding contour.

Two decades on, Frankenthaler is freer and looser with her color, which is to say, she is painting extraordinary veils of transparent color that for all intents and purposes mime the general color disposition of her paraphrase models. Margeretha Trip is just such an example. Comparing this ethereal work to its real world example – Rembrandt van Rijn’s portrait of Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip made approximately three hundred years earlier–Frankenthaler focuses on the essential manner in which light attracts the eye in the model. It is the likeness of Rembrandt’s Margeretha Trip only in the master’s handling of light and dark, of what was then called chiaroscuro, which was a tool artist’s used for creating illusionistic volumes. The collar of the original is its dominant feature, with the cuffs and hands following close on it. Luminescence is the theme here.

In like manner, Frankenthaler mimes the white of Rembrandt’s canvas, layering it over broad swatches of black to create transparent veils of graded densities. A work like Morris Louis’s Lamed Beth, 1958, currently in the Museum Reina Sofía comes to mind, in which a soft pyramidal shape is washed by transparent pigment. As the scholar and curator John Elderfield avers, “The [painting] refers not, or not only, to the look or appearance of its source but to its nature, to the manner that painted it, and to the form of its pictorial existence. Representation, certainly, was not trusted to tell whatever it was about the source that Frankenthaler wanted to tell. … To tell us what it is she sees, the artist will tell us how that thing is composed, will discover its working in her working, and will view her subject not distancedly–finished, separate, and apart–but as something to which she has access and within which she can immerse herself continuously” (J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 310). What Frankenthaler sees is what she paints. And what she paints here is a full realization of her own technical and conceptual mastery.

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