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Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Property from the Collection of Patricia and Ernst Jan Hartmann
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Gypsy

Details
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Gypsy
signed and dated 'frankenthaler '73' (lower right)
acrylic on canvas
81 x 87 in. (205.7 x 221 cm.)
Painted in 1973.
Provenance
Galerie André Emmerich, Zürich
Private collection, Zürich
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1979
Exhibited
Zürich, Galerie André Emmerich, Helen Frankenthaler, Neue Bilder, June-August 1974.
Aarau, Switzerland, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Von Hodler zu Noland, June-July 1977.

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Rachael White
Rachael White

Lot Essay

Spanning almost seven feet square, Helen Frankenthaler’s Gypsy is a brilliant iteration of the artist’s soak-stain paintings from her highly-acclaimed period of production in the early 1970s. In the monumental canvas, Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique creates an array of painterly forms, ranging from dark washes, luscious lines, and expansive pools of color that spread across and into the surface. Striking fields of acrylic paint fill Gypsy’s masterful composition as their liquid edges billow out, overlapping each other, building stronger layers, richer tones, and defined shapes. In the central portion of the canvas, an extraordinarily rich blue orb flows into a cloud-shaped mass of a luminous cobalt hue. A translucent white form runs horizontally along the bottom register, balancing the thick adobe red passages on the left and right edges. The painting, whose colors seamlessly spread into the surface like aqueous watercolors, alludes to a blue sky melting into a horizon of crashing and foaming ocean waves. The diluted ethereal washes and opaque applications of acrylic paint epitomize Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking soak-stain technique that has become a pillar of the 20th century American painting.
As a female painter, Frankenthaler burst onto the art scene in 1952 with the exhibition of her breakthrough painting Mountains and Sea, and upended the male-dominated New York School. Her revolutionary innovation of the soak-stain technique, which consisted of pouring thinned paint onto raw untreated canvas, allowed the color to absorb directly into the weave of the canvas, mingling with and becoming one with the surface. Building on the stylistic breakthroughs of Jackson Pollock, who abandoned traditional painting techniques by painting on horizontal canvas laid on the floor, Frankenthaler de-emphasized brushstroke and gesture in favor of poured and dripped paint to create large areas of solid color. The effect of this process is an all-over composition that is luminous and translucent, with layered color fields simultaneously suspending from and receding into the support. Frankenthaler’s novel method that foregrounds the support while playing with color and depth transitioned Abstract Expressionism to the mid-20th century Color Field. Frankenthaler once noted, “Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting... somehow using everything one knows about painting materials, dreams, and feelings. Consciously and unconsciously, the artist allows what must happen to happen. That act connects you to yourself and gives you hope... The painter makes something magical, spatial, and alive on a surface that is flat and with materials that are inert. That magic is what makes paintings unique and necessary” (H. Frankenthaler quoted in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1950-59, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 46).
First shown at the Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings in 1974 at Galerie Andre Emmerich in Zurich, Gypsy marks the start of a new period of artistic production in the 1970s, in which Frankenthaler’s paintings are extraordinarily rich in color and ambitiously more complex. In January 1970, Frankenthaler moved from her 83rd Street studio, and the start of a new decade met the artist with great success. Her 1969 retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York was warmly received, and established her powerful influence on American painting. In 1972, art historian Barbara Rose published the second major monograph on Frankenthaler’s work, stating: “Her paintings are not merely beautiful. They are statements of great intensity and significance about what it is to stay alive, to face crisis and survive, to accept maturity with grace and even joy" (B. Rose, Frankenthaler, New York, 1972, pp. 105-106). With a fresh chapter in her career, Frankenthaler embarked on new series of paintings that introduced drawn line, where she used it not for imagery or figuration, but as a discrete and intrusive abstract component in the composition.
From 1972-1973, Frankenthaler created variants of the drawn line in her paintings by incorporating a single painted horizonal line that runs along either the upper or lower edge of the canvas. The insertion of a defined line across the painted surface, exquisitely illustrated in Gypsy, opens up a new chapter in Frankenthaler’s career. In Gypsy, a soft and organically shaped area of white juxtaposes the delicate and sharp thin white line that stretches across the bottom of the surface, contrasting its intrusive quality. The line bleeds across the surface, both unifying and creating a rift between the different shapes of color melting into each other. The insertion of a line into an abstract surface suggests an abstracted landscape with a subtle horizon. The soft shapes of acrylic colors also possess defined edges, creating a more structured landscape that recalls the sensitivity of Hokusai’s woodblock prints. Through Gypsy, Frankenthaler makes her signature light and aerial compositions intriguingly complex with the incorporation of the strong drawing element of line.
Frankenthaler was a restless innovator, and for “over more than half a century, [she] remained a fearless explorer in the studio, investigating a remarkable range of media. She adopted acrylic paint, on canvas and paper, early on [in the early 1960s], reveling in its intensity even when thinned” (K. Wilkin, "Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011),” American Art, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2012, p. 103). It was at the time Frankenthaler painted Gypsy that she introduced printmaking into her oeuvre, which is reflected in her introduction of drawing elements as well as her use of sharper lines and color. Even though Gypsy marks a transition in the artist’s career as a painter, her manipulation of the acrylic medium is still controlled, and the colors continue to delicately intersect one another as they do in her work from the 1950s. These new shapes of color are defined but remain airy, the outlines strongly allude to landscape imagery, but retain Frankenthaler’s signature expansive shapes that bleed across the bare canvas. Gypsy opens the viewer’s eye to the artistic process behind Frankenthaler’s paintings, and showcases how she deconstructs imagery in order to create powerful abstractions of color, shape and line.

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