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HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
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Property from an American Collection
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)

Rabat

Details
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011)
Rabat
signed and dated 'Frankenthaler '70' (lower right); signed again and dated again 'Frankenthaler 1970' (on the stretcher)
acrylic and marker on canvas
87 x 81 7/8 in. (221 x 208 cm.)
Executed in 1970.
Provenance
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Private collection, Palm Beach
Hokin Gallery, Palm Beach
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 216 and 400 (illustrated).

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Lot essay

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.”

Helen Frankenthaler

Marking the apex of Helen Frankenthaler’s career, Rabat from 1970, with its rich palette of predominantly teal, oranges and white, was created the year following the artist’s critical rise to stardom—when she was regarded as the most important female artist of her time. Indeed, the preceding year saw the launch of Frankenthaler’s first major retrospective, which was organized by Eugene C. Goossen at the Whitney Museum of American Art and later traveled throughout the United States and Europe where it was applauded by the critics. Later in the year, Frankenthaler was chosen as the only woman to be represented in Henry Geldzahler's ground-breaking exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as being included in the exhibition Twentieth-Century Art from the Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Frankenthaler entered the 1970s being lauded as a major figure of contemporary art in America, and Rabat is a pinnacle example of this stardom.


During the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Frankenthaler began to incorporate a more literal sense of space into the assembled forms and condensed signs that filled her canvases. As a result, her work became as much a focus on the tension between the foreground and background, as it was about the shapes and colors that her pouring technique produced. The way she maneuvered the interlocking and overlaid planes of complementary colors as she examines ideas of depth and flatness recalls the Cubist period of Picasso and the unique style of Cézanne—two artists who were a great influence on her work. In 1967, Frankenthaler said, "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). Whereas before, the artist was comfortable letting the pigment determine the contour of the shape, and now, she is determining the edges of the pigment. And it is visible in Rabat where the passages of pure, dense color abut each other in a majestic effect. Her wide travels through Europe and Morocco in 1970 are also reflected not only in the works title, but also in the artist’s chosen palette.

Rabat, with its powerful passages of color seeping through from the corners—energized yet calming— reflect Frankenthaler's desire to pursue her own path within the male dominated realm of Abstract Expressionism. The artist's signature use of staining—pouring the pigment directly onto raw canvas laid out on the floor—was inherited from Jackson Pollock, yet Frankenthaler's gestures were more fluid and harmonious than many of her male counterparts, lending her work a more poetic and lyrical quality. Comprised of vivid passages of teals, oranges, yellows and greens, Frankenthaler allows these colors to engage in a dialogue with each other and the crisp white “air” around them, responding to the movement of the eye as it glides across the surface of the painting, as if the viewer is taking in the Moroccan cityscape. One can almost see the crisp lines of Rabat’s architecture against the glistening water, harkening back to traditional landscape portraiture.

Of Frankenthaler's work, John Elderfield writes, “One most important consequence of the 1969 Whitney Museum retrospective has yet to be mentioned: its effect on the artist herself. The reappearance of specific line drawing in the paintings of 1970 must owe something to the renewal of contact, offered by this exhibition, with her paintings of the 1950s…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.”

The soak stain technique inherited from early pioneers of Abstract Expressionism was derived by pouring ribbons of oil paint laced with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvases laid down on the ground. The result was diaphanous and free-flowing forms enlivened by the vivacity of her elegant color selections. As with other masters of color field painting, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, the controlled relationship between the varying color passages and raw canvas produced a necessary tension in response the all-over, paint laden surfaces of Pollock and Mark Rothko. Clement Greenberg coined the term "Post-Painterly Abstraction" to describe the new exploration in abstract painting of staining the canvas, rather than applying paint by hand, to produce a formal solidarity and compositional levity. The result was a significant transition from the individualistic gesture of the abstract expressionists to a new focus on the relative anonymity of color and form. Rabat is a breathtaking example of the continued innovation Frankenthaler sought to achieve in her expansive career—taking cues from her earlier work as she explored the way color and form could bring her to new heights.

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