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Warming the Wires

Warming the Wires
signed and dated 'frankenthaler '76' (lower right); titled and dated again '"WARMING THE WIRES" NOV. 1976' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
84 x 114 in. (213.4 x 289.6 cm.)
Painted in 1976.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York, 1977
Anon. sale; Phillips, New York, 16 November 2017, lot 27
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
E. C. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 1982, p. 209.
G. Glueck, "Gallery View; When an Artist Changes Style," The New York Times, 29 May 1983, p. H26.
J. Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 276, 278, 288 and 403 (illustrated).
K. Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism, New York, 1994 (illustrated on the cover).
Ridgefield, Connecticut, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Changes, May-September 1983, n.p. (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Awash in luminescent, evanescent color, yet tactile in its treatment of paint as paint, Warming the Wires (1976) shows the inimitable Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) at her mature best, as agile with her brush as she was with her palette. Set against a stained background of pulsating saffron, Frankenthaler’s blues and greens and pinks and whites pool across the canvas in intentional yet liberated swaths. Using acrylics of varying viscosity, Frankenthaler coaxes texture out of smoothness and intrigue out of aesthetic. Her colors are poured but placed, and her forms are outcomes of happenstance, yet fully at home in the company of one another. Rising from a swirling, frothy sea are kaleidoscopic passages of peach, puce and periwinkle, while broad strokes of gold, berry and bubblegum reach across the left lower register. The perpetual motion succumbs, however, to the quiet strength of the dagger slicing across the upper left quadrant before tapering to a vanishing point. Starts and stops, evident in scattered impastos and ridges of paint, render visible the artist’s strong movement at the moment of application – though somewhat distanced from the New York School for her keen interest in color, Frankenthaler’s swift, deliberate motions with her tools identify her among the most accomplished gestural painters of the 20th century.

Conjuring images of chickadees roosting on telephone lines, the present lot’s title takes its place among the litany of literary labels bestowed by the creator. For abstraction to effectively have a name and keep from delving into pseudo-figuration, Frankenthaler ensures a lack of readable imagery within her composition, relying on her poured paint technique to elevate her works from the legible realm. Committed to seeing in color rather than contour, Frankenthaler perfected the soak stain method of covering canvas, inherited from early pioneers of Abstract Expressionism who spilled ribbons of oil paint laced with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvases laying 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 Mark Rothko and Sam Gilliam, the controlled relationship between the varying color passages and raw canvas produced a necessary tension in response to the all-over, paint-laden surfaces of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Clement Greenberg coined the term “post-painterly abstraction” to describe this novel exploration of letting the material take charge, rather than applying by hand, to produce a formal solidarity and compositional levity. Thus, out of the individualistic, machismo actions of the Abstract Expressionists grew a new focus on the relative anonymity of color and form. Still, a sliver of reality slips into the present picture with the upper slash, a perch from which to survey the natural morass below, a veritable wire in a painting about warming them.

“I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute” (H. Frankenthaler).

In the same collection for forty years before coming to the current owner, Warming the Wires is a livable picture, a friendly canvas, a sizable fraction of Frankenthaler to be cherished. John Elderfield, author of the artist’s seminal monograph, comments precisely on the present painting, reveling in the “intimacy between image and ground” featured in the “tangibly constructed picture, built from slabs and pieces of paint surface” (J. Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 278). To work on a grand scale yet nurture opportunities for personal connection with the painting is the mark of the genius; verily, nestled among the sweeping sections are striking surprises – a bit of orange here, a bit of fuchsia there – geared towards never-ending stimulation. Constant looking is incapable of taking in every nuance; even Frankenthaler herself surrendered to what the picture held for her: “Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting... Consciously and unconsciously, the artist allows what must happen to happen. That act connects you to yourself and gives you hope” (H. Frankenthaler, quoted in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1950-59, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 46). Ever the artist of hope, Frankenthaler, in Warming the Wires, gently takes the artist’s static accessories – acrylic, canvas, stretcher – and breathes hot life into a hitherto chilly apparatus.

With her mark-making taking center stage, the present lot testifies to Frankenthaler’s courage in the face of a controversial art world – one in favor of control rather than freedom. Warming the Wires is not just liberated – it is a celebration of such liberation, playing with form in the eggshell interruption of viridian and the grassy stroke nudging its way along the upper right edge, yet refraining from telling form what to do. Frankenthaler is the conductor, the pigments her instruments – she searches for sound and allows herself to enjoy what she hears. Sit and stay awhile, listen to the symphony, look a long time, cool your heels and warm the wires.

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