‘Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting’ — Red Square (1959) by Helen Frankenthaler

Offered in November at Christie’s to benefit a new scholarship initiative from Bennington College — the artist’s alma mater — this large-scale work exemplifies the unique form of abstraction for which Frankenthaler would become famous


Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Red Square, 1959. Oil and crayon on sized, primed canvas. 68 x 126 ¼ in (172.7 x 320.7 cm). Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 15 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Photo: Courtesy Bennington College

Across a groundbreaking career, Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler would upend the male-dominated New York School and forge a form of visual expression that changed the way artists conceived of and used colour. Combined with her fervour and expertise, the sheer visual impact of her work cemented her legacy as a pillar of 20th-century American painting.

Born in New York City in 1928, Frankenthaler attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied art under the direction of Paul Feeley. For Frankenthaler, who would describe her time at Bennington as ‘brilliant’ and ‘inspiring’, Feeley’s instruction provided a foundation that would prove fundamental to her artistic development. 

In his classes, Feeley taught his students how to dissect and analyse the work of painters such as Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne and Kandinsky. ‘We would really sift every inch of what it was that worked; or if it didn’t, why,’ Frankenthaler later explained. ‘Along with his great sense of elegance, style, humour, there was a raw, rough, risk-taking, dare-devil quality [to Feeley], all reflected in his teaching. He was instrumental along with others in bringing contemporary art and artists to the College; so that one could get the magic and reality from the source. Bennington became a kind of link of the avant-garde, and people from all over were eager to participate.’

Frankenthaler’s studies at Bennington, from which she graduated in 1949, provided a foundation for much of her subsequent work. But her artistic trajectory took a major turn when in 1950 she came upon the paintings of Jackson Pollock at Betty Parsons’ New York gallery. 

As she later said, ‘It was as if I suddenly went to a foreign country but didn’t know the language, but had read enough and had a passionate interest, and was eager to live there,’ she recalled. ‘I wanted to live in this land; I had to  live there, and master the language.’ 

In time Frankenthaler was introduced to Pollock by the critic Clement Greenberg, and visited the artist at his Long Island studio on a number of occasions. Although she never watched Pollock work in person, she learned from her visits how to take canvas off the easel, abandoning traditional painting techniques in favour of the pouring and dripping that she subsequently began to pursue in her own work.

‘Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting… using everything one knows about painting materials, dreams, and feelings’ — Helen Frankenthaler

Executed in 1959, Frankenthaler’s large-scale work, Red Square, perfectly exemplifies the unique form of abstraction for which she would become famous. An important early example of her revolutionary painting style, which celebrated the elemental nature of painting, Red Square  was included in her retrospective at The Jewish Museum in New York in 1960, and was later donated by the artist to Bennington College.

In this monumental canvas, Frankenthaler assembles a vast array of painterly forms: mysterious dark washes, dramatic lines, and pools of colour that spread across the white surface. Her signature poured-paint technique is used to introduce large areas of pigment, which are then manipulated with a dry brush. Equally important to the overall composition are passages of white, which open up the surface.

As she told Artforum  magazine in 1965, ‘When you first saw a Cubist or Impressionist picture there was a whole way of instructing the eye or the subconscious. Dabs of colour had to stand for real things. It was an abstraction of a guitar or a hillside. The opposite is going on now. If you have bands of blue, green and pink, the mind doesn’t think sky, grass and flesh. These are colours and the question is what are they doing with themselves and with each other.’

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Frankenthaler would later describe her need to paint this way: ‘Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting... 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.’

This November, Red Square  will be a highlight of the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale  at Christie’s in New York. The work comes to Christie’s from Frankenthaler’s alma mater, Bennington College, to benefit Art for Access, a new initiative from the College that provides a dynamic model for supporting scholarships by inviting new donations of art to the school. Through this initiative Bennington will seek gifts of works of art to be sold to benefit one of the College’s highest priorities: providing scholarships for talented students who otherwise would not be able to afford a Bennington education. Art for Access celebrates the College’s pioneering legacy in the visual arts while advancing its commitment to equity, diversity and access.

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