HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
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HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)

Genuine Blue

Details
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
Genuine Blue
signed and dated 'Frankenthaler '70' (lower left); titled and dated again twice ‘1970 “Genuine Blue” 1970’ (on the stretcher)
acrylic and marker on canvas
91 x 93 in. (231.1 x 236.2 cm.)
Executed in 1970-1971.
Provenance
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1971
Literature
B. Guest, “Helen Frankenthaler: The Moment and the Distance,” Arts Magazine, April 1975, pp. 58–59.
B. Forgey, “Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1969–1974,” Washington Star, Washington D.C., 27 April 1975, n.p. (illustrated).
R. M. Campbell, “Frankenthaler’s Recent Work on Display,” Post Intelligence, Seattle, 29 June 1975, n.p. (illustrated).
"Helen Frankenthaler show is an intense visual experience", in The News Tribune from Tacoma, Washington, D.C., 3 August 1975, p. 45 (illustrated).
A. Holmes, “Frankenthaler’s Canvases Soar with Buoyancy,” Houston Chronical, 21 October 1975, n.p.
J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 217 and 400 (illustrated).
Exhibited
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Frankenthaler, November-December 1971.
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum and Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1969-1974, April-November 1975, n.p., no. 11 (illustrated on the cover).
Milwaukee Art Museum, Hidden Treasures Wisconsin Collects, 1987.
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lot Essay

"I was going to Morocco…and as an artist you think of the visits Matisse and Delacroix made there. In art and decoration…linear or arabesque motifs were used…on walls, reliefs, tiles, gates, railings—an ordered mélange of patterns." Helen Frankenthaler
Painted in the months after her return from Morocco in 1970, Helen Frankenthaler’s Genuine Blue is a sumptuous, optical feast. This landmark painting evokes the beautiful palette of Morocco, in its famous blue-tiled interiors and bright, Saharan light. In this series, the maturity and finesse of Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique has reached a new tipping point. She creates a narrow channel that traverses through the immense cerulean and lapis blue canvas, inflecting it with touches of gold and green. Frankenthaler called this visual device a “cable” or “crevice” and indeed, it lends the painting the feeling of light cracking over distant vistas, and of deep ravines slicing through mountainous terrain. Illustrated on the cover of Frankenthaler’s major touring exhibition in 1975, which originated at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., Genuine Blue is a brilliant tour-de-force from a seminal moment in the artist’s career.
An expansive canvas spanning nearly eight feet, Genuine Blue envelops the viewer in its sweeping blue fields, punctuated by bright yellow passages along the lower and right edges. Clouds of blue congregate and hover toward the painting’s mid-section, where an undulating channel of bare canvas cuts through, angling off toward the upper right corner. The empty passage is inflected with touches of green and gold, which plays against the negative space of the bare canvas, infusing it with light and atmosphere. Frankenthaler has used a felt-tip marker to draw a series of serpentine lines that rise up through the painting’s center. This pictorial device cleverly echoes the organic curvature of the channel running through the middle, adding yet another layer of visual and perceptual complexity to the piece, whilst simultaneously echoing the beautiful, fluid lines of Moroccan design.
By this time in her career, Frankenthaler demonstrated complete mastery over the pioneering soak-stain technique that had brought her to fame, in 1952, with Mountains and Sea (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). A year earlier, Frankenthaler had visited Jackson Pollock’s studio, and was inspired to place her canvas on the floor. She used thinned-down oil paints to pour and pool the viscous liquid onto a sheet of unprimed canvas. As a result, enigmatic shapes were fused with the ground on which they were poured, and this had the effect of silhouetting them, as if actors on a stage. These paintings were unusual and new; their imagery appeared “all of a piece,” as conjured, all at once, by some magician’s trick. Paradoxically, they also seemed to evoke a sense of landscape – not just in their predominantly horizontal format, but in the way that Frankenthaler used the bare canvas to infuse her work with a feeling of light, air and atmosphere.
As Frankenthaler’s work progressed into the 1960s, she switched from thinned-down oils to using acrylics (a medium which is inherently more opaque) and covered more of the canvas surface. These luminous, jewel–toned paintings brought her considerable acclaim as one of the leading Color Field painters of her generation. By the time she created Genuine Blue, in 1971, Frankenthaler was at the top of her game, having recently been fêted with a major retrospective at the Whitney in 1969. As in Genuine Blue, Frankenthaler had mastered control over the crystalline areas of color, wielding them with the authority and finesse of a maestro commanding his orchestra. She wasn’t afraid of scale either – painting on canvases spanning six, eight and even sixteen feet. In Genuine Blue, she uses the calligraphic outlines of the poured shapes as a way of “drawing” in space.
"It was only in 1970 that line drawing became truly central to her art once again. The immediate inspiration, the artist tells us, was Islamic linear decoration seen during a visit to Morocco in June of 1970." John Elderfield
As the critic John Elderfield explained, it was Frankenthaler’s trip to Morocco in mid-May of 1970, that brought about critical new developments in her work. This, coupled with the opportunity to survey her entire oeuvre up until that point, at the Whitney retrospective in 1969, brought about a sense of cohesion and a chance for reassessment. As in Mountains and Sea, where the wriggling, calligraphic edge of her poured forms acted as a sort of drawn line, Frankenthaler began to again introduce linear elements into her work. This appreciation for undulating lines was further solidified by the splendid tile mosaics of Morocco and its domed architecture. Elderfield has written: “It was only in 1970 that line drawing became truly central to her art once again. The immediate inspiration, the artist tells us, was Islamic linear decoration seen during a visit to Morocco in June of 1970” (J. Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 214).
Not much has been written about Frankenthaler’s sojourn in Morocco, but its effect on her work is pronounced, as this important group of paintings evoke the beautiful colors and crisp, bright light of that fabled North African country and its long-standing influence on 20th Century artists. “I was going to Morocco…and as an artist you think of the visits Matisse and Delacroix made there. In art and decoration…linear or arabesque motifs were used…on walls, reliefs, tiles, gates, railings—an ordered melange of patterns” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in E.A. Carmean, Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989, p. 54).
For Frankenthaler, the color blue was a recurring leitmotif in her oeuvre, as she was continually drawn to the calm and serenity afforded by views of the ocean, from her earliest visits to Provincetown in 1950, where she studied with Hans Hofmann, to her long-standing studio at Shippan Point, overlooking Long Island Sound. It was in Springs, in East Hampton, that she first encountered Pollock, and she summered there in 1951 and ‘52. In the 1950s and ‘60s, her travels brought her to far-flung and exotic destinations where the landscape hugged the coast, from Cape Breton in 1952 to the Côte d’Azur, on her honeymoon with Robert Motherwell in 1958, and to Ireland in 1969. Like Matisse and Delacroix before her – and especially the designer Yves-Saint Laurent – it was in Morocco that the particular character of the color blue became something magical, and it is this “genuine” blue that inspired the present painting.
In Genuine Blue, Frankenthaler seems to have bottled and distilled the very essence of Morocco itself, where its brilliant, blue palette and bright, desert light has been translated into poured and stained passages of color. By creating a chasm that runs through the vast blue expanse, Frankenthaler creates a feeling of landscape – as if peering out over Tangier, the city nestled into the hills, with its distant view of the ocean beyond. As she previously stated, Frankenthaler was “thinking of Matisse,” while in Morocco, and in fact named another painting in this series “Hommage à H.M.” (1971; Art Institute of Chicago).
For Matisse, who made his first trip to Tangier in January of 1912, staying at the Hotel Villa de France, he was similarly enthralled by the North African city and its vibrant palette. The textiles, architecture, mosaics, and blue ocean vistas inspired a series of paintings in which Matisse created an abstracted view of the Moroccan landscape that became a harmonious marriage of color, pattern and line. Frankenthaler may have been inspired by Matisse’s Window at Tangier (1912; Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), in which he uses the pictorial device of an open window to create an abstracted vision of a distant view of Tangier, with its pale, blue skies inflected with pink, and situated on the Strait of Gibraltar.
Indeed, Matisse’s Window at Tangier presents a three-dimensional landscape that has been abstracted into a flat, two-dimensional pattern. He delights in the arched passageways of the buildings below, and in the undulating, s-shape of the ocean, which appears to blend seamlessly with the dark blue shadows cast by the architecture. Frankenthaler may have been inspired by the freedom with which Matisse painted this “window” onto Tangier, using vibrant, high-keyed colors, in a flat design that snaps back and forth between two-dimensional patterning and a sense of deep, recessional space. “Pictures are flat and part of the nuance and often the beauty or the drama that makes a work, or gives it life...is that it presents such an ambiguous situation of an undeniably flat surface,” she declared, the same year she painted Genuine Blue (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in C. Nemser, “Interview with Helen Frankenthaler, Arts Magazine, November 1971, p. 54).
For Frankenthaler, color could evoke a landscape, or it could allude to the natural world in an oblique way, rather like poetry or music. In 1971, the art critic Lawrence Alloway described these sensations as “pastoral” in nature. For Alloway, Frankenthaler created an abstracted “essence” of landscape, which he called “modernist” “glimpses” (L. Alloway, “Frankenthaler as Pastoral,” in ArtNews, November 1971, p. 67). Much of this had to do with her almost prescient understanding, and life-long pursuit of, color in all its luminous and varied forms. “Frankenthaler can be viewed as one of the most important, distinctive colorists of the twentieth century,” Elizabeth A.T. Smith, the art curator and present Director of the Frankenthaler Foundation, has written, “occupying a place in a spectrum of artists of the modern and contemporary periods who have reinvigorated color and its expressive possibilities as key components of their art” (E. A.T. Smith, “Colour Issues,” in PUBLIC Journal: Art, Culture, Ideas, Vol. 51: Colour, October 2015, p. 134).

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