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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection


signed and dated 'Frankenthaler 1959-1960' (on the reverse)
oil and charcoal on canvas
90 x 70 in. (228.6 x 177.8 cm.)
Painted in 1959-1960.
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York
Gagosian Gallery, Paris
Acquired from the above by the present owner
L. Mahony, "Helen Frankenthaler," Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2017, pp. 90 and 94 (illustrated).
Paris, Gagosian Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler: After Abstract Expressionism, 1959-1962, June-September 2017, pp. 43-45 and 86 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Helen Frankenthaler’s joyous Untitled is a testament to the artist’s innovation with both materials and use of color. At an expansive seven-and-a-half feet by about six feet, this early painting subsumes us into a lyrical meeting of red, blue, and yellow. Alexander Nemerov, a biographer of Frankenthaler, succinctly explains her timeless appeal, “She needed skill, drive, savvy, charisma, and—above all—an extraordinary gift to make her way. That gift consisted in taking what was happening around her—inside her, too—and bringing it out in sudden, momentary pulsations of color and shape and line” (A. Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, New York, 2021, p. xv). This is abundantly apparent in Untitled, which is like a map of Frankenthaler’s inner drive—a view of a world much like our own that nevertheless invites us to view the fantastic.

Created during a period of intense creativity at the dawn of the 1960s, Untitled centers on labor, pigment, and form. John Elderfield, the foremost historian of Frankenthaler’s work, calls this period “think-tough, paint-tough”—a gestural, muscular process with deep art historical import. (Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, 2017, https://www.frankenthalerfoundation.org/exhibitions/helen-frankenthaler-after-abstract-expressionism-1959-1962). Her paintings of the 1950s and into the early 1960s often evoked landscapes, as with the iconic Mountains and Sea (1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Autumn Farm and Acres (1959), and Italian Beach (1960). Accordingly, Untitled is rich and dense, an admixture of earth, sea, and sky with its layered, coexisting vertical and horizontal marks that seem to emanate from the painting’s support. Painted simultaneously with the first use of the term Color Field Painting to describe her paintings in 1960, Untitled features vibrant hues upon luxurious linen, which creates her signature play of textures. Within these wide swaths of color, which are supplemented by charcoal, Untitled contains a number of smaller yellow and blue marks that drift freely, like archipelagoes, mixing with other islands as they float within the linen borders. Also characteristic of Frankenthaler’s work of the period were compositions focused on centralized, sun-like compositions. The cosmic symphony here is complemented by moments of rest on the composition’s edge. In Untitled, Frankenthaler combined her signature staining with thicker applications of paint, creating beautiful investigations into density and movement.

Frankenthaler expanded upon the Modernist aims of her colleagues in paintings like Untitled over her six-decade career. As critic Grace Gluek argues, “[Frankenthaler’s method] brought a new, open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism” (G. Gluek, “Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83,” New York Times, December 27, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/arts/helen-frankenthaler-abstract-painter-dies-at-83.html). This is especially apparent in Untitled, in which the transcendent aims of the Abstract Expressionists is perhaps still present, but Frankenthaler’s technique gives it a tactile and accessible presence, as if it longs to join our world.

Frankenthaler’s advanced artistic output of the 1950s and 1960s is essential to understanding the breadth of her career. As she painted Untitled, she was already a regular participant in the international art world. In 1959, she won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris and participated in documenta II. She also mounted a retrospective in 1960 at the Jewish Museum, New York. In 1964, Frankenthaler was included in the genre-defining group show Post-Painterly Abstraction, curated by the legendary critic Clement Greenberg, which would become central to the history of Color Field Painting. A few years later in 1966, she represented the United States in the Venice Biennale with Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jules Olitski. Early in her career, Frankenthaler was a force to be reckoned with, “The young artist seemed impervious to criticism, exhibiting instead a remarkable sense of confidence and authority as she pursued her own trajectory,” considering throughout her career “how color could define space” (A. Vukadin, “Sea of Change: Helen Frankenthaler Review,” Frieze, May 23, 2019, https://www.frieze.com/article/sea-change-helen-frankenthaler-review). All of this early success can be traced back to paintings like Untitled, which bridge multiple art historical lineages and open up discussions of the medium to previously unconsidered avenues.

Frankenthaler’s early work, epitomized by Untitled, has all of the majesty of her later oeuvre, and it is the result of a constantly evolving mind that would ultimately change postwar painting forever. Her vision was a personal one that always intersected with her larger dialogue with and contrary to the New York School. Always challenging the status quo, Frankenthaler went against the grain, just as her choice of colors and techniques in Untitled brings disparate forms together. Ultimately, Untitled is a study of juxtapositions. Its terrestrial marks are generated by her interest in landscape, and yet there is simultaneously something otherworldly in it. Our minds can run free as we look and find ourselves within it.

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