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signed ‘Frankenthaler’ (lower right)
acrylic and marker on canvas
86 x 133 in. (218.4 x 337.8 cm.)
Painted in 1973.
David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto
Private collection
Anon. sale; Sotheby's Parke Bernet, New York, 28 May 1976, lot 342
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
The Jewish Community Federation of Greater Rochester, New York
Their sale; Christie’s, New York, 17 May 2001, lot 167
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. Drucker, "Waxing Purple," Architectural Digest, December 2004 (illustrated).
Toronto, David Mirvish Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler, May-June 1973.
Montreal, Museum of Contemporary Art, Eleven American Artists, November-December 1973, pp. 11 and 30 (illustrated).

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Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of the 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

“What thrills us, in part, is her fearlessness- her willingness to use color in such simultaneously striking and subtle ways, to alternate between pure abstraction and the sort of figuration that causes an image to appear, and then vanish, at the very edge of our consciousness.” F. Prose, “Line into Colour, Colour into Line”, Gagosian Gallery, New York. p. 7

Dazzling in its grandiosity, Helen Frankenthaler’s Crete from 1973 spans over seven feet high and eleven feet wide. Flanked by majestic gold swatches of color, a cascading and lush veil of pink engulfs the composition. Oscillating between positive and negative space, its form suggests both a cavernous emptiness and a dense mass. It is within this dichotomy that Frankenthaler’s work thrives. By supplying just enough visual information to locate a figurative image but not enough to establish any sort of concrete representative definition, the painting exists in constant flux.
Perhaps one of Crete’s most unique aspects are the two lines which dance across the upper register of the painting. Images emerge and then sink back in Frankenthaler’s paintings, but these lines draw the viewer’s gaze to the surface of the painting. These wavering lines, although slight, garner immediate attention and provide a vantage point into the composition. Like the large brown and pink forms, the lines seem to simultaneously recede and reappear, providing a sense of movement and travelling, recalling the image of an unconnected bridge across the central mass.
Helen Frankenthaler was an avid traveler; she had been to Europe many times at this point in her life and had certainly visited the Greek Isles. The isle of Crete, after which this painting is named, is the largest and most populous of the Greek Islands. The island is known for its large mountain ranges, its deep gorges, and its gleaming pink-sand beaches; a reference to these geographical features can be found in the present work’s grandiose forms.
In the summer of 1952, a young Frankenthaler visited Nova Scotia where she was inspired by the dramatic coastline. Later that year, she famously debuted Mountains and Sea, on extended loan at the National gallery of Art, which was described as “a light-struck, diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water,” and is considered one of the artist’s most important and groundbreaking work (G. Glueck, “Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83,” New York Times, December 2011). Crete, made two decades later, represents Frankenthaler’s continued inspiration drawn from the beauty of the natural world around her as well as an artist at the peak of her creative abilities.
Much like her Abstract Expressionist counterparts such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Adolph Gottlieb, Frankenthaler also found inspiration in the myths of antiquity, but seemed much more at ease with depicting the everyday beauty of life. While maintaining their sophistication, Frankenthaler’s paintings evoke a levity and joie-de-vivre often missing from the work of her predecessors. She was greatly inspired by Pollock’s drip-painting technique, which undoubtedly influenced her own invention of pouring thinned down paint onto unprimed canvas.
While Crete exemplifies Frankenthaler’s alignment with her abstract expressionist compatriots, it also highlights what makes her artwork distinct, namely its association with landscape. There is a richness in Crete’s colors that seems to absorb the viewer into its internal plane. Although there are no explicit environmental references, the work has a geographic feel to it. Jackson Pollock alludes to nature with works such as Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), but Frankenthaler’s Crete is unique in its specific geographical reference. Akin to Georgia O’Keefe’s evocative use of color, the warmth of Frankenthaler’s central pink waves is buttressed by the cool, swirling brown-greens of the sidelined forms.
In 1973, the same year that the present work was created, Frankenthaler had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. At this point in her career, she was already a widely-renowned artist who had exhibited in esteemed institutions around the world. Although she maintained an immediately recognizable style all her own, Frankenthaler would continue to innovate and push her practice all throughout her life as a painter. In the artist’s earlier works, like the seminal Mountains and Sea, created in 1952, one can clearly make out the charcoal lines that underlie the panting’s composition. Throughout the 1960s, these lines begin to disappear and all that remains upon the canvas are poured seas of paint. Once we reach the 1970s, Frankenthaler begins to reintroduce the lines, except now they lay over the poured compositions. This reversal and reintroduction of linearity speaks not only to the artist’s determination and creativity, but also to her ability to mine her own past artistic practice for novel paths of progress.
The Abstract Expressionist movement, typified by artists such as Pollock and Rothko, had taken painting to it farthest limits in its obliteration of figuration. Using her iconic pouring technique, Frankenthaler was able to take painting in an entirely new direction while maintaining the spirit of the movement. In the words of Morris Louis, Frankenthaler “was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible” (Morris Louis quoted in J. Truitt, “Art-Arid D.C. Harbors Touted ‘New’ Painters,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, 1961.)
The next generation of painters, like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, were able to learn from and build off of Frankenthaler’s work in a way that was not afforded by any other artist from that generation. Helen Frankenthaler’s work, exemplified by these large-scale, vibrant and open-ended paintings like Crete, not only changed the landscape of art during her career but irrevocably shifted the paradigm of painting in ways that we continue to see to this day.

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