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Property to Benefit the CUNY School of Medicine at The City College of New York


signed 'Frankenthaler' (lower right)
acrylic on canvas
92 ¾ x 65 1⁄8 in. (235.6 x 165.4 cm.)
Painted in 1987.
André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Robert and Irmgard Carras, New York
Gift of the above to the present owner, 2019
M. C. Hickman, "Frankenthaler New Work," Art/World, vol. 12, no. 3, December 1987-January 1988, p. 4.
S. Kandel and E. Hayt-Atkins, "Reviews: Helen Frankenthaler," ARTnews, vol. 87, no. 3, March 1988, p. 190.
R. Smith, "Helen Frankenthaler," The New York Times, December 1987, p. C35.
New York, André Emmerich Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings and Works on Paper, December 1987, n.p., pl. 3 (illustrated).

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Julian Ehrlich Associate Vice President, Specialist, Head of Post-War to Present Sale

Lot Essay

Lavishly dripping in rich, jewel-toned hues of plum and emerald green juxtaposed with a wash of effervescent apricot, the aptly named Barcelona conjures the full sensory experience of enjoying a gentle golden hour in coastal Spain. Painted in 1987 during the artist’s stay in Barcelona, the present lot is an enchanting example of Helen Frankenthaler’s mature and refined style, characterized by a balance of spontaneity and control. Her use of bold, nuanced color and her mastery over the soak-stain technique she popularized all work together effortlessly in Barcelona, inviting its viewers to engage on a deeply intuitive level. An expansive canvas at over seven feet tall, Barcelona envelops the viewer in a sublime atmosphere – at once calming and energizing, and altogether impossible to walk away from.

This sophisticated composition can be traced back to Frankenthaler’s breakthrough at just twenty-three years old in 1952 with her painting Mountains and Sea (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). In this painting, Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique fully materialized for the first time. The airy, translucent effect of her thinned paint poured directly onto raw, unprimed canvas laid on the studio floor had an immediate and significant impact not only on her career, but also on the formation of the Color Field school of painting and the work of its members – notably Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Indeed, with Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler established herself as an integral member of the so-called second generation of abstract expressionists, and even more so, as a pioneering colorist whose work would inform one of the most significant American art movements of the twentieth century.

By the 1980s, when Frankenthaler painted Barcelona, murmurs in the art world and a broad return to figuration in the scene indicated that abstract art – and even “beautiful” art – was falling out of vogue. Frankenthaler nonetheless forged on in her lifelong pursuit of color and abstraction in all its varied forms. “Today,” she told Voice of America in 1993, “there’s a fashion in the art world where the word beauty is ostracized as being obsolete, meaningless, and that other considerations in art are far more important. Beauty is a very tricky word, and the way I use it means an order and a sense of rightness that moves you and that usually has to do with the scale, and the light, and he tradition, and everything else that goes into a painting.” Thus, abstraction and the “soak-stain” technique continued to be a prominent feature of her work, even amidst the changing styles of the time. That’s not to say that Frankenthaler’s work remained static. On the contrary, Frankenthaler’s steadfast commitment to her singular approach to artmaking caused her to constantly push the boundaries of her own practice. As evidenced by Barcelona, her compositions in the 1980s became more gestural and instinctive, allowing the colors and forms to flow organically across the canvas. While her earlier works focused on a delicate balance between literal and abstract elements, Frankenthaler’s paintings of the 1980s really let loose, embracing a more fully abstract and emotionally charged approach.

Despite the free-flowing, abstract nature of Barcelona, this painting is a landscape painting at its core. Frankenthaler was well-traveled and found deep connections with the places and landscapes she witnessed, and these experiences played a vital role in her practice throughout her six-decade career. For Frankenthaler, color alone could evoke a landscape. Barcelona thus belongs to a long lineage of works by the artist inspired by specific locales –The Bay from 1963 (Detroit Institute of Art, Michigan) references the Chesapeake Bay on the east coast of the United States; Santorini from 1965 (Art Institute of Chicago) is named for the Greek island; and Desert Pass from 1976 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.) was inspired by her first trip to Arizona. Indeed, like Barcelona, many of Frankenthaler’s most admired and captivating compositions recall a memory of place, wherein the artist ingeniously captured the fleeting and ephemeral aspects of the world around her in an almost Impressionist manner.

In 1971, the art critic Lawrence Alloway described the sensations in Frankenthaler’s paintings as “pastoral” in nature. For Alloway, Frankenthaler created an abstracted “essence” of landscape, which he called “modernist” “glimpses” (L. Alloway, “Frankenthaler as Pastoral,” ArtNews, November 1971, p. 67). Much of this had to do with her almost prescient understanding of color and luminosity. “Frankenthaler can be viewed as one of the most important, distinctive colorists of the twentieth century,” Elizabeth A.T. Smith, the art curator and present Director of the Frankenthaler Foundation, has written, “occupying a place in a spectrum of artists of the modern and contemporary periods who have reinvigorated color and its expressive possibilities as key components of their art” (E. A.T. Smith, “Colour Issues,” PUBLIC Journal: Art, Culture, Ideas, vol. 51: Colour, October 2015, p. 134).

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