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Property Sold to Benefit the Dina and Raphael Recanati Family Foundation

Yellow Crater

Yellow Crater
signed ‘Frankenthaler’ (lower left); signed again ‘Frankenthaler’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
80 3/4 x 68 3/4 in. (205 x 174.6 cm.)
Painted in 1963-1964.
Private collection, California
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 26 February 1992, lot 125
André Emmerich Gallery, New York, 1992
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 1992

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Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of 20th Century Evening Sale, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art

Lot Essay

Painted over the course of two years between 1963 and 1964, Helen Frankenthaler’s majestic Yellow Crater bears witness to the bold, new innovations taking place in her studio, as she lit upon the mature phase of her iconic soak/stain technique. A stunning painting brimming with bright, beautiful colors and executed on a grand scale, Yellow Crater immerses the viewer in this painterly world. Frankenthaler is recognized as one of the foremost colorists of the late twentieth-century, and in the present work she grabs hold of color with a newfound maturity and boldness, achieving what the critic B. H. Friedman described as the “total color image” that came to define this body of work. Limiting herself to only primary colors and leaving a wide berth of raw canvas around the central forms she creates, Yellow Crater makes manifest Frankenthaler’s mature soak/stain technique in its most essential state of being.

In 1962, Frankenthaler began to focus on produced sharper, crisper and more vibrant paintings. As in Yellow Crater, Frankenthaler was able to achieve more crisply delineated forms by pouring out and pooling the paint – almost like “drawing in color” as historians have pointed out. In rare cases, Frankenthaler used both oil and acrylic, thinning them down to a pourable liquid state. She used large sheets of unprimed canvas that she spread out on the floor of her studio. Kneeling or standing over the large blank pieces of virgin cloth, Frankenthaler slowly poured out the viscous paint directly onto the fabric, letting it soak, stain and pool in subtle fields and bands of color. In Yellow Crater, the amount of control she exerts over the delineation of these forms is staggering, especially in the contours and outlines of the shapes, and in their joining or near-joining of neighboring forms. It is here that we see the pinnacle of Frankenthaler’s painterly development. This is the pure visual evidence of what she termed the wild experiments and surprises taking place in her work at this time.

Yellow Crater bears witness to these newfound changes in Frankenthaler’s work, which would ultimately sustain her for decades to come. Tellingly, in Yellow Crater, she daringly opted for a dazzling array of colors, centered around a giant yellow “crater form,” from which a variety of small, medium and large orbs emerge. Soft washes of pale blue with wispy, feathery edges are paired alongside round and oblong blue, red and yellow forms, some of which have been dripped and splattered with a lively immediacy, while others have been gently pooled, displaying a rounded and meandering edge. Working from the bottom up, Frankenthaler creates a kind of platform along the lower edge, where a slender horizontal wedge of yellow is then stacked with a light tan shape. This is followed by the large yellow “crater” or bowl form in the central register. Several paintings from this era demonstrate a similar “stacked” arrangement along the lower edge, which is accompanied by larger, more amorphous clouds of pure color that gather within the center of the canvas. Astonishingly, Frankenthaler manages a great degree of three-dimensionality in this work, especially in the center, where areas of white space create a powerful sense of recessional depth and perspectival space.

By the time she painted Yellow Crater, Frankenthaler had already built upon a decade’s worth of success, having become well known for her pivotal 1952 painting Mountains and Sea. This was her very first painting made from pouring paint directly onto the raw canvas. She had visited Jackson Pollock’s studio with the art critic Clement Greenberg in 1951, and was inspired to move her paintings from the easel to the floor. She spent the next decade painting the subtle, amorphous, Abstract Expressionist paintings that made her a major painter of the postwar era. In 1959, Frankenthaler won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris, and in 1960, she was given her first major museum exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York. This show marked a turning point of sorts, eliciting a new direction in her work, which would kickstart her next great artistic development. Around that time, Morris Louis famously remarked that Frankenthaler was a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible” (M. Louis, quoted in J. Yau, “On Her Own,” in Helen Frankenthaler: East and Beyond, New York, 2011, p. 5).

By 1964, Frankenthaler had transitioned from the leaner, more calligraphic paintings of 1960-’61, to those that contained larger, more emphatic color-forms taking up more of the canvas space. In a letter dated March of 1963, she wrote about these changes, as she prepared for a new exhibit at the André Emmerich Gallery: “I’ve never felt so good about a show—there are a few pictures in it that really put my message across, I think.” In a similar letter dated May of 1963, she wrote of the “wild experiments and surprises” taking place in her work (H. Frankenthaler, both quoted in E. A. T. Smith, Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color, Paintings 1962-1963, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2014, p. 13). Critics responded favorably to these new developments, and now Frankenthaler’s paintings of 1964 and 1965 are considered some of the greatest of her entire career, with many major paintings from 1964, specifically, housed in major American museum collections, such as Small’s Paradise (1964; Smithsonian American Art Museum), and Interior Landscape (1964; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

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