Red Shift, 1990 signed 'Frankenthaler' (lower right); signed, titled, inscribed and dated '"RED SHIFT" frankenthaler 1990 A/C 60" x 76" (5' x 6'4")' (on the reverse) acrylic on canvas 60 x 76in. (152.4 x 193cm)
PROVENANCE: Irving Galleries, Palm Beach.
"I've explored a variety of directions and themes over the years. But I think in my painting you can see the signature of one artist, the work of one wrist" (Helen Frankenthaler quoted in B. Hess, Abstract Expressionism, Cologne 2006).
As Helen Frankenthaler's artistic style evolved over her nearly six-decade career, the truth to this statement became more and more apparent. In the early 1950s, she was one of a select group of ground-breaking New York painters who came to prominence in the Post-War period. Having studied at Bennington College and later with the great Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann, she embarked upon life-long interest in what would later become known as Color Field painting. Through her friendship with renowned art critic Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler became close friends with Jackson Pollock and was a frequent visitor to his studio. His "free" application of unadulterated color to canvas would become a telling influence on her work.
Between her studies and time with Pollock, Frankenthaler realized that color and its application to canvas were the two most weighted concerns in her own signature style. As she once stated, "I had no desire to copy Pollock. I didn't want to take a stick and dip it in a can of enamel ... I needed something more liquid, watery, thinner. All my life, I have been drawn to water and translucency. I love the water; I love to swim, to watch changing seascapes. One of my favorite childhood games was to fill a sink with water and put nail polish into to see what happened when the colors burst up the surface, merging into each other as floating, changing shapes" (ibid, p. 80). Through experimentation she pioneered the "soak-stain" techniquein which thinned paint was applied directly to unprimed canvas allowing the paint to be absorbed directly on to the surface creating a very flat and thin appearance. Interestingly this technique would be adopted a few years later by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, both of whom she was well acquainted with and who cite her as a key influence on their own work.
By 1962, Frankenthaler had begun using acrylic paint-relatively new medium at that pointpreferring its faster drying speed, resistance to fading over time and how when thinned it would not bleed and separate from the pigment as oil paint does when mixed with turpentine. The new paintings from this period were composed with even thinner washes of pigment and were even more saturated with color than previously and became even more suggestive of the flowing nature of liquid forms over a surface. At the same time, her use of acrylic allowed her to exact shapes more distinctly and rigidly than oil had allowed in the past.
The late 1970s brought even more change to Frankenthaler's working method. No longer would she leave some areas of her canvases bare, or raw, but instead covered the entire surface in washes of contrasting hues that evoked certain similarities to Morris Louis's works. Furthermore, during this time period she had adopted a brighter and lighter color palette, perhaps influenced by time spent in the American Southwest. Her compositions had even started to take on more of a landscape-like appearance than her earlier work had. A rising concern of pictorial space began to her occupy her practice, and in the 1980s and 90s--as with the present lot--Frankenthaler even began adding areas of thicker paint or impasto to the surfaces of her work, which added a whole new level of depth, transformation and movement.
Speaking with Henry Geldzahler in 1965, Frankenthaler was already thinking about how shapes and color affect and influence the spaces she was creating, stating that she tries to "determine if they work in a certain kind of space through shape or color. I think all totally abstract picturesthe best ones that really come offNewman, Pollock, Nolandhave tremendous space; perspective space despite the emphasis on flat surface. For example, in Noland a band of yellow in relation to a band of blue and one of orange can move in depth although they are married to the surface. This has become a familiar explanation, but few people really see and feel it that way ...In my work, because of color and shape a lot is read in the landscape sense..." (Frankenthaler quoted in Henry Geldzahler, "Interview with Helen Frankenthaler", in Artforum, 4, no. 2, October 1965, p. 37). It is clear that by the 1990s, as her career should have been winding down, Frankenthaler was instead further developing and even improving upon her earlier successes, choosing to challenge the painted surface again.
Red Shift serves as a superb example of Frankenthaler's late paintings. All of the elements of composition and technique that she had honed and developed over her career come together magnificently in this richly hued and elegantly dynamic tour de force. The separation of hues neatly creates a foreground and background, seemingly representing some sort of a picturesque landscape. Areas of floating impasto go further to suggest clouds and population. The picture is at once abstract and representational, brilliantly blurring visual boundaries as so many of her paintings do.
"In her life as in her art, Frankenthaler has said that she is interested primarily in growth and development. Throughout her career, she has been faithful to these principles. As one traces the course of her work, one sees a steady maturation and an unwillingness to rest with any solution -- no matter how successful ... Her paintings are not merely beautiful. They are statements of great intensity and significance about what it is to stay alive, to face crisis and survive, to accept maturity with grace and even joy" (B. Rose, Frankenthaler, New York 1972, pp. 105-6).
Abstract and expressionist artist Helen Frankenthaler tips the contents of a can of paint onto a canvas on the floor. She is the inventor of a technique whereby unprimed and absorbent canvas is soaked with paint giving a translucent effect. In black and white book (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)
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