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Property from an Esteemed Private Collection


signed and dated 'frankenthaler 1975' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
79 x 97 in. (200.7 x 246.4 cm.)
Painted in 1975.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Mnuchin Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New York, 1968, pp. 636 and 681, pl. 273 (illustrated).
H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, New York, 1986, p. 490 and 502, pl. 234 (illustrated).
N. Goldstein, Design and Composition, Englewood Cliffs, 1989, pp. 225 and 227, fig. 10.61 (illustrated).
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings, November-December 1975 (illustrated on the cover).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, anonymous loan, 1997-1998.
Kansas City, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Make Room for Color Field, December 2016-December 2018.
New York, Mnuchin Gallery, The Joy of Color, November-December 2018, pp. 62-63 (illustrated).
Eugene, University of Oregon, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Shared Visions, August-November 2019.

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

"Color can be beautiful in terms of how it moves; yet it remains in place. If color doesn't move in space, it is only decorative." Helen Frankenthaler

Influential as much for her technical prowess as for her innovative compositions, Helen Frankenthaler’s contributions to both Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction cannot be understated. Working at a time when Greenbergian formalist ideals ruled, she continuously reinterpreted the painted surface in an effort to more meaningfully bond the image with the object. Elberta is a glowing example of the artist’s nuanced investigation into the play between rich acrylic hues and the painting’s edge. "Color can be beautiful in terms of how it moves; yet it remains in place. If color doesn't move in space, it is only decorative" (H. Frankenthaler, quoted by J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p.184). Deftly combining material with motion, Frankenthaler set the stage for the next evolution of twentieth-century abstraction.

Elberta is a radiant example of Frankenthaler’s exploration of the divide between physical and pictorial spaces as well as her own ability to render that distinction on the surface of a monumental canvas. Given over to a preponderance of fiery orange, the majority of the composition is bathed in sunrise hues that swirl and bleed across the work thanks to the artist’s use of varying viscosities to create different levels of painterly opacity. In the lower third of the painting, the cascade of warm acrylic hues gives way to areas of overlaid paint and strips of raw canvas which are evocative of a seaside landscape. Barely separated from the rest of the work, a large rounded pool of darker peach drifts down to the lower right corner while being intersected with lines of white and unprimed surface. The left corner is an instant focal point with its stack of blue, green, yellow, and red that sit atop each other like sedimentary layers. The weave of the canvas is visible at times, and a nod toward Frankenthaler’s early experiments with staining techniques is readily visible in the easy flow between the painted surface and support.

Frankenthaler’s practice signaled a true evolution of the earlier Abstract Expressionist methods as she built upon their revolutionary work to usher in a new era. In particular, Frankenthaler adopted the habit of working directly on unprimed canvas from Jackson Pollock, who famously dripped paints directly on his surface for varied, active results. In works like the renowned Mountains and Sea (1952), she employed thinned paints that flowed easily into the weave of the canvas and created a visual conversation between the two materials not seen until this time. By allowing the oils to soak into the fabric, Frankenthaler dispensed with any sort of illusionism and created a legitimately flat picture plane. The diluted paints also acted more like watercolors than traditional oil, and in doing so formed blooms and halos of color imbued with an ethereal light hitherto unseen in the New York School. Artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, themselves leading members of the Washington, D.C. painting scene, were thoroughly entranced by Frankenthaler’s techniques, and her influence is readily seen in their stained canvases.

Never one to be complacent, Frankenthaler continuously probed the depths of her artform in an effort to more fully utilize materials and processes in a manner in line with her forward-thinking sensibilities. As the decades continued, she would often trade oils for acrylics in an effort to boost color and saturation while remaining true to her exploratory nature. “They are continually being returned, as we look at them, to the pigmented wetness from which they were created,” wrote John Elderfield about Frankenthaler’s work, “whose own, independent beauty holds our attention certainly as much as what they seem to describe... Color beyond ordinary; an unconstructed freedom of composition; an open, breathing surface; absolute candor in its making and in its address to the spectator: all combine to tell of a benign and idyllic, if fragile, domain of innocence and pleasure" (J. Elderfield, Ibid., p. 11). Works like Elberta are a testament to the artist’s ability to lay bare the very building blocks of painted abstraction.

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