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February's Turn

February's Turn
signed 'Frankenthaler' (lower left); signed again, titled and dated 'Frankenthaler "February's Turn" 1979' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
48 3⁄8 x 108 1⁄4 in. (122.9 x 275 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
M. Knoedler & Co., New York
Private collection, California
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 1992, lot 98
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Princeton University Art Museum and Jacksonville, Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting, May 2014-April 2015, pp. 18-19, 34-35, 54 and 56-57 (illustrated).
Tampa Museum of Art and Memphis, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Abstract Expressionism: A Social Revolution, April 2019-January 2020, pp. 21, 31 and 51, no. 6 (illustrated).

Brought to you by

Emily Kaplan
Emily Kaplan Senior Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-Head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

An extraordinary, large-scale example of Helen Frankenthaler’s mid-career work, February’s Turn, painted in 1979, represents an essential moment in her ceaseless invigoration of painting over her six-decade long career. In his recent book Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, scholar Alexander Nemerov writes that Frankenthaler’s paintings “enshrine the living feeling of days like no one else’s do” (A. Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, New York, Penguin, 2021, pp. 12). This is especially true of her monumental canvas February’s Turn, which has all the pulsating beauty and aliveness of a warm winter day and the coming of spring it foretells. A large, immersive work at nearly nine feet long, February’s Turn is exemplary of the artist’s penchant for emotional heft, poetic grandeur, and artistic experimentation. As Nemerov suggests, the sublime February’s Turn is a record of time itself. The canvas’s title, evoking the joyful end of winter, is compounded by Frankenthaler’s precise, but capacious, brushstrokes, which are themselves markers of the intensive labor she put into each of her paintings.

When February’s Turn was exhibited at the Princeton University Art Museum in 2014, The New York Times art critic Martha Schwendener singled out the painting’s “atmospheric effect” that results from Frankenthaler’s novel use of paint (M. Schwendener, “The Process Behind the Painting,” The New York Times, September 12, 2014). With its earthy, rich tones, the painting places the viewer within the swirling change of seasons and the changes inherent to life itself. Its horizontal thrust is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s monumental drip paintings, mural-like in their scale, ambition, and mobilization of color to create emotion, or Franz Kline’s use of the black line as an expressive gesture. Like a mural, February’s Turn tells an open-ended story of a warming winter, the artist’s hand taking us into spring with melting reds, pinks, browns, and purples. The dripping black mark becomes a metaphor for the inevitability of change, poetically suggesting the end of one season to allow a new one. Frankenthaler thus creates an optimistic landscape of unfolding time.

Frankenthaler was likewise always reinvigorating her work. By the 1970s, she had modified her trademark soaking and staining of the canvas, which became foundational to Color Field painting and her signature style, with thicker applications of paint and bolder colors, allowing for an even more lasting emotional impact. Additionally, Frankenthaler moved away from her previous strategy of centering the painting’s action within the canvas. February’s Turn is paradigmatic of the artist’s interest in the edge of the canvas, with one dark mark almost wanting to escape vertically. With Frankenthaler’s unflinching application of paint across the surface, it is as if winter is aflame and ready to emerge anew as spring.

Frankenthaler’s paintings of the 1970s are central to understanding her career, as well as the myriad historical references she uses in her paintings. It is no mistake that scholar and curator John Elderfield likens Frankenthaler’s paintings from this period to panoramas and friezes with their horizontal presentation. He goes on to compare them to the murals of 19th century French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose evocative, paintings have a timeless flatness to them that gives his figures a lyrical, transhistorical quality. It is not a random comparison. Flatness would become the most important site of intellectual struggle for Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, with Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Frankenthaler, and others rigorously considering its effects. According to Elderfield, Frankenthaler’s relationship to paint itself also changed in this period, “By the time she gets into the 1970s, and certainly by the mid-1970s, something else is happening: there really is a sense of the canvas being one material and the paint being another” (J. Elderfield and P. Karmel, “Frankenthaler,” Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2019). We can see this effect clearly in February’s Turn, in which the stains and soaked canvases of earlier decades are combined with a more direct application of paint, creating a dance between medium and canvas not unlike the dance of the seasons.

Frankenthaler was likewise no stranger to change, central as she was to numerous shifting debates about the status of Modernism and painting in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Her first professionally exhibited painting, Mountains and Sea, was shown in 1952 when she was 23 years old. Though she was inspired by Pollock, she used soaking with watered down pigments as opposed to dripping on the canvas, and in so doing created a signature style at a young age. Mountains and Sea has become one of Frankenthaler’s most lauded, prescient, and historically important works, and we can see echoes of it in February’s Turn. While different in style, this present work is part of Frankenthaler’s longstanding interest in natural forms as metaphors and sites of innovation, as well as poetic titling as a way of intensifying the resonance of painting.

As with her canonical early work, February’s Turn can be seen in retrospect as a paramount chance to chart the development of one of the most important painters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and a colorist beyond compare. A historic and iconic work in Frankenthaler’s oeuvre, February’s Turn is a painting of unparalleled adventurousness and art historical rigor. It brings to its rich and fiery hues centuries of questions about how painting can narrate emotions, stories, the steady march of time, and the lives of artists themselves.

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