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

Center Break

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Center Break
signed 'Frankenthaler' (lower left)
oil on canvas
38 ¼ x 57 in. (97.2 x 144.8 cm.)
Painted in 1963.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Dr. J. Lawrence Pool, New York
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1978
B. Rose, Frankenthaler, New York, 1974, pl. 128 (illustrated).
Champaign-Urbana, University of Illinois, Krannert Art Museum, Biennial of Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, March-April 1965, p. 46 (illustrated).

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Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan

Lot Essay

Spanning nearly five feet wide, Center Break is an extraordinary example of Helen Frankenthaler’s masterful work of the 1960s. Elegant streaks of teal and soft columns of red burst against the golden sunflower yellow that dominates the upper register of the canvas. Among the many ground-breaking painters who thrived during the Post-War era in New York, Helen Frankenthaler was responsible for some of the boldest and most innovative experiments with color. The soak-stain technique for which she has become most well-known was derived from pouring swaths of oil paint laced with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvases she laid down on the ground. Beautiful paintings with diaphanous and free-flowing forms resulted from this technique, which were enlivened by the vivacity of her elegant color selections.

Departing from the dramatic brushstrokes of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist paintings, Frankenthaler chose to emphasize the flat surface of the canvas itself over the effort to use the surface to construct an illusion of depth, and in doing so, she compelled the viewer to appreciate the very nature of paint on canvas. Her work became an essential bridge between two enormously significant movements in mid-20th Century painting–Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism–offering a new way to define and use color for those artists who were to define the Minimalist movement of the sixties. The surface of the canvas, and the play of colors across it, can be thought of as Frankenthaler’s true subject.

Having resided in the same private West-Coast collection for the past 40 years, Center Break exemplifies Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking soak-stain technique and is filled with dynamic and organic forms rendered in a stunning palette. As significant patrons of the arts and key benefactors of several major West Coast museums, the owners of the present work recognized Center Break’s beauty with its alternating areas of translucence, luminosity and opacity. Colors are darker in some areas and lighter in others, with the varying opacity determined by the thickness of Frankenthaler’s application of paint. The title of the work reinforces the dynamism of the composition, with its central element seeming to break out of the canvas. Art historian Barbara Rose rightly 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).

In 1964, just one year after Center Break was completed, Clement Greenberg organized a groundbreaking exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that then traveled to the Walker Art Center and Toronto Museum of Art. Greenberg defiantly outlined his observations in his essay for the catalogue, explaining that "As far as style is concerned, the reaction presented here is largely against the mannered drawing and the mannered design of Painterly Abstraction, but above all against the last. By contrast with the interweaving of light and dark gradations in the typical Abstract Expressionist picture, all the artists in this show move towards a physical openness of design, or towards linear clarity, or towards both. They continue, in this respect, a tendency that began well inside Painterly Abstraction itself, in the work of artists like Still, Newman, Rothko, Motherwell, Gottlieb, Mathieu, the 1950-54 Kline, and even Pollock. A good part of the reaction against Abstract Expressionism is, as I've already suggested, a continuation of it. There is no question, in any case, of repudiating its best achievements. Almost a quarter of the painters represented in this show continue in one way or another to be painterly in their handling or execution Helen Frankenthaler's soakings and blottings of paintopen rather than close the picture, and would do so even without the openness of her layout" (C. Greenberg, "Post-Painterly Abstraction," in The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Chicago, 1993, pp. 194-195). As the only female artist included in Post-Painterly Abstraction, Frankenthaler's participation in this momentous exhibition signaled her position as a recognized leader amongst the second generation Abstract Expressionists. The openness of her forms distinguished her works from the hard-edged and more geometric leanings of her male counterparts.

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