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The First of the Year

The First of the Year
signed and dated 'Frankenthaler '76' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
72 x 138 in. (182.9 x 350.5 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles
Private collection, California, 1987
Anon. sale; Christie's, Los Angeles, 6 June 2001, lot 32
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
E. C. Goossen, “Helen Frankenthaler: Notes on Some Recent Painting,” Bennington Review, no. 1, 1978, pp. 47 and 61 (illustrated).
Vermont, Bennington College, Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler: Recent Painting 1975-1978, 1978, n.p. (illustrated).
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Lot Essay

Painted in 1976, The First of the Year is an expansive canvas which exemplifies the increased painterliness which Helen Frankenthaler’s began to introduce into her paintings during this period. Having established her groundbreaking practice in the late 1950s by pouring her pigments directly onto unprimed canvas and letting them soak into the surface of the support, by the 1970s Frankenthaler focused more exclusively on a new set of relationships between support and image, and image and edge. Thus surface, structure, pigment, and form—all elements which were important to the artist—come together. Speaking of her works from this period, Frankenthaler exclaimed “the feeling with these works [is] that many possibilities are being explored” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted by J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 274).
In the present work, a vast tract of burnt umber and warm chestnut hues traverses the surface of the canvas. In places, this layer is gossamer thin, allowing the golden glow of the ground to permeate through; in other places, condensed areas of pigment pool to give a sense of depth to the composition. Running horizontally through the center of the work, is a sliver of bright lead white paint sandwiched between a thin band of plum and cardinal red. Throughout, we can see evidence of Frankenthaler’s considered brushwork, as she gently manipulates the pigment on the surface to achieve her desired effect.
It was during this period that Frankenthaler made what would prove to be influential trip to Arizona. It was her first visit to the American West, and she became immediately enamored with the vast desert landscape. It was so different from the imagined landscapes of her earlier work, and the expanses of space, along with a quiet sense of sublimity, would all eventually make their way into works such as the present example. In works from this period, there is an intimacy between surface and ground, as identified by the critic Clement Greenberg, who noted that the artist treated the surface “as a responsive, rather than insert object, and painting itself as an affair of ‘prodding’ and ‘pushing,’ ‘scoring’ and ‘marking,’ rather than simply inscribing and covering” (C. Greenberg, quoted by J. Elderfield, ibid., p. 278).
As such Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1970s become more painterly, the brushstrokes as well as the stains have become more apparent as the trace artistic interventions is revealed. Rather than pigment per se carrying the force of expression, the physical handling of the surface comes to participate in expressive meaning. Bringing forward in time lessons she had learned from the painters of the New York School, among them Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell, Frankenthaler leaves the evidence of her mark on the surface in ways both beguiling and assertive. And while the majority of the surface is covered by her painterly gestures, a central ‘image’ brings this work closer to those artists’ image making, no matter how abstract.
Emerging out of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler became one of the most significant painters of the second half of the twentieth-century, defining an entirely new style. She opened up new possibilities for abstract painting, while using her unique methods to make reference to figuration and landscape. A restless experimenter and innovator, “…[over] more than half a century, Frankenthaler remained a fearless explorer in the studio, investigating a remarkable range of media. She adopted acrylic paint, on canvas and paper, early on, reveling in its intensity even when thinned” (K. Wilkin, "Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011),” American Art, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2012, p. 103). Her work stands as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, offering both a new way to define and use color and new forms of nonrepresentational expression.

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