Winter Light is a breathtaking work in Helen Frankenthaler’s oeuvre that revels in nature, both real and human, and relishes the union of paint and canvas. The artist’s imagery, though abstract, recalls a familiar scene in nature: a stormy winter sky, patches of darkening blue fading into a fiery red-orange sunset that peeks out between an otherwise opaque blanket of clouds, a calculated mélange of blues, oranges and greens, threatening to crack and release its fury at any moment. Expansive pools of thinned acrylic flow into one another and flirt with thickly applied, controlled brushstrokes. In places, there is a sharp division between fields of color, most clearly within the bottom left quarter, where saturated deep blue horizontal and vertical lines create a strong and confident barrier against the contrasting colors of rusty patinated sky.
There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture . . . that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.”
With this work, Frankenthaler skillfully thrusts the viewer into a splendid landscape, sublime yet picturesque, at once representational and abstract. Not incidentally on the artist’s part, the painting evokes the grand Romantic works of J.M.W. Turner; in a later interview, she cited the nineteenth century painter as an artistic influence. Yet with singular flair, Frankenthaler transforms a mostly static sight, a calm moment in nature, into a dynamic tour de force, evident in the occasional yet distinct splashes and strokes of bright orange, blue, green and noticeably bright white paint. In this way, the present work is a stunning embodiment of a statement by Frankenthaler herself: “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).
Frankenthaler was preoccupied with nature, and winter was a motif to which she returned and reinterpreted across the decades. Unlike some of her fellow Abstract Expressionists, however, she did not paint in series; rather, for each composition she stirred up a unique combination of pigments, brushstrokes and emotions, all of which she spilled onto the canvas with masterful discretion. This workis distinct among Frankenthaler’s other Winter paintings, as it cements a transition to a more mature style during which she championed Color Field painting, following in the footsteps of innovator Mark Rothko, who foregrounded color and form as the all-important and indispensable aspects of painting. With Winter Light, the artist distances herself from the spirited Winter compositions she produced in the 1950s; this work is reflective, markedly more subdued than the Pollock drip paintings that inspired the inception of her soak-stain technique in the early 1950s. One critic remarked on Frankenthaler’s paintings of the late 70s and 80s: “Here, one no longer finds pristine growth and curiosity about the mysteries of nature, but an awareness of the inevitable decline of being and nature" (B. Nilsson, Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1977-88, exh. cat., Heland Wetterling Gallery, Stockholm, 1988, p. 4).
Winter Light is finally getting the spotlight after 42 years in the same private collection. Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, began a close relationship with Frankenthaler during a year he spent as a visiting professor at NYU in the late 1970s. The pair remained friends for a number of years; his collection included several of her pieces, including a print inscribed, “With love to Tom and Jehane, my friends. In Celebration! Helen 30 Dec. ’82,” a gift marking his subsequent marriage. Kuhn acquired Winter Light directly from the artist the year after it was painted, and it remained in the family collection. It presents us with a stunning example of Frankenthaler’s innovative soak-stain paintings that made her an artistic sensation, singular amongst her contemporaries.
At 51 years old, and largely working from her seaside studio in Connecticut, Frankenthaler was surrounded by nature in 1979, the year Winter Light was painted. And though she drew from it for the titles and imagery of her paintings, she maintained a delicate and precise balance between reality and abstraction that made her exceptional and groundbreaking. During her prolific career, she traversed the major art movements of the late twentieth century and continued producing works into the twenty-first. Morris Louis, who visited Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953 and witnessed her revolutionary technique firsthand, remarked of Frankenthaler that she was “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible” (M. Louis, quoted in E. Gibson, “Pushing Past Abstraction,” Wall Street Journal, 27 December 2011). Indeed, Winter Light is a fitting manifestation of her enormous influence.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).