HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011) Summer Angel, 1984

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Lot 13W
Summer Angel, 1984

Sold for US$ 907,500 inc. premium
Summer Angel, 1984

signed 'frankenthaler' (lower right); titled and dated 'Summer Angel 1984' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas

91 1/8 x 114 1/2 in.
231.5 x 290.8 cm


  • Provenance
    Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owners circa 1985.
    By descent from the above to the present owner.

    A dramatic departure from representational painting, Helen Frankenthaler's Summer Angel, 1984, is a spirited example of the large-scale abstraction that has become the artist's most iconic achievement to date. Infused with drawn elements and richly applied pigments, the present work is a stunningly buoyant reminder of Frankenthaler's relentless innovation and commitment to the integrity of her craft. Sensuous, grand, and utterly fresh to the market, Summer Angel is undoubtedly the product of an artist at the very peak of her creative prowess, a masterful composition that reinforces Frankenthaler's position at the forefront of the vernacular of American Contemporary Art.

    Immersed in the progressive dialogue of painting from the very start, Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928 and began to paint and travel at an early age. By the mid-1950s, Frankenthaler was gaining recognition for her tactful yet forceful experimentation in the field of abstractionism, a space she shared with contemporaries and close friends including Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell. Drawing from instructors and peers such as Hans Hofmann and Jackson Pollock, respectively, Frankenthaler began to develop an artistic practice of her own which involved pouring paint directly onto an unprimed, un-stretched canvas laid on the floor of her studio. Simultaneously harnessing the physicality of Hofmann's push-pull technique and paralleling the action painting pioneered by Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler thus begun a decades-long interest in the linear expressions of painterly communication. Her impact on 20th Century painting was irrevocable, and this soak-stain method can be traced as a precursor to the Color Field movement from which champions such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis would later emerge.

    In Summer Angel, 1984, the audience witnesses perhaps the broadest spectrum of artistic representation in one singular picture plane. A combination of freely figured lines, spilled acrylic, splattered pigment and faint brushstrokes reinforces Summer Angel's varied elegance. Art historian Carol Armstrong praises Frankenthaler for her all-over approach to painting, noting, "Whether poured or brushed, all of the lines index gestures of the arm and hand while the larger areas of color chart the starting and stopping of a flow: the intended movements of the painting body as against the contingent physics of pigment."1 Summer Angel is powerfully emotive; its striated bands of color representing the more sensual aspects of painting. Near the upper left edges, drip marks echo vestiges of the wide sweeping brushstrokes, while drawn lines snake vertically through the right side of the work in a cerulean current that guides the viewer's attention downward. Oceanic shapes can be seen swirling and coalescing in a harmonious gradation of light, grounded only by a thin azure band at the extreme horizontal edge, pushing the eye upward to begin the circular momentum again. Summer Angel is an arresting composition, its elliptical forms dancing across the canvas in a rectilinear pattern, encouraging movement that pulsates from within and across the two-dimensional frame. Of the loosely gestural strokes evident in Summer Angel, Frankenthaler says, "... at some point it freed me to let my wrist and heart and eye go to do something enormous and abstract."2

    Upon first glance, the viewer's eye is cast upon the nebulous, aquatic perimeter, its sheer basins of color boldly concentrated at the edges, diluted towards the center. As one delves further into consideration of the present work, its poetic delicacy is laid bare. Esoteric marine forms present themselves in an ebullient display suggestive of a hopeful summer sky or infinite body of water. An oblong marigold imprint serves as a subtle mark of the artist's hand, like a lone California poppy set against a clear sky, firmly standing its ground among the tidal flows of blue hues: a bright mast in the current that can be felt within Summer Angel.

    One of the more remarkable aspects of Summer Angel is the delineation of concrete line that lends the present work a distinct sense of vibrancy and rebellion against structured forms, serving to unify the piece as a whole. While other abstract artists at this time were allowing color to be derived from predetermined form, it was Frankenthaler, and only Frankenthaler, that let color itself determine the structure of the picture plane. In direct contrast to the staccato brushstrokes and steep textures of the Abstract Expressionists, Frankenthaler produced passages of vibrant color that were visually consumed as one continuous field, rather than as diverging facets of color. Due in part to the constitution of her medium, Frankenthaler was able to manipulate the spatiality of a finite canvas, permitting the viscosity of her acrylics to interact with and respond to gravity, rather than having the artist's hand dictate geometric forms. Her practice both accentuated and rejected the flatness of the two-dimensional canvas, so that depth was felt through and into the canvas rather than layered on top of it. It is Frankenthaler herself who best encapsulates her relationship with the limitations of her own domain, stating, "Well, over the years I've done different things at different times with corners, even using them or ignoring them or pretending they're not corners, or feeling very grateful that there are four corners, or painting as if the corners were miles beyond my reach or vision and that they were only centers of periphery, at other times feeling I want edges and limits defined."3

    Unlike other works from the same era, Frankenthaler does not fill the entire canvas of Summer Angel with paint. Instead, she creates a window-like expanse of color interspersed with white acrylic and stretches of bare linen thread, allowing energy to emanate out of the unpainted canvas and seep through the entire composition. Due to the nature of Frankenthaler's application of thinned pigment in which acrylic retains an agency of its own, this span of unadulterated canvas in Summer Angel of 1984 was increasingly rare throughout the later years of Frankenthaler's long and storied career as she perfected her technique over time. This is not to say, however, that the consistency of her process was rendered any less spectacular. In fact, it was not until the early 1980s that Frankenthaler began to receive critical acclaim for her highly technical approach to painting. By this time, her canvases had become much larger and simpler in terms of internal construction, yet they presented a more refined approach to the investigation of color expendability. Summer Angel thus emerges as the ultimate manifestation of the artist's prolific output during this period. Armstrong makes a powerful argument for the strength of Frankenthaler's 1980s works within the context of her oeuvre as a whole, suggesting, "In all of her later painted work, she would alternate between gestural lines, thickened marks standing off the surface with a distinctly haptic texture to them, and larger areas of much thinner, atmospheric color letting them play off against each other."4 Summer Angel, then, can be considered the thematic and stylistic consummation of painterly practices Frankenthaler had explored in the preceding decades.

    Additionally, the binary combination of pure white and sky blue was a rarity in Frankenthaler's palette during the 1980s, which tended to favor mint greens and earthly browns, hues that were richly rooted in the artist's engagement with natural elements. Rather than being anchored to the ground, Summer Angel is a light and lofty body that is intimate yet all-consuming. In a statement that could comment on the ability of open space to constitute a limitless potential for emotion and imagination, Frankenthaler famously said, "It's light in the painting that makes it work."5 In fact, no better phrasing has completely epitomized the rhapsodic aura of Summer Angel. Standing in contrast to the splashy, effusive works that emerged from Frankenthaler's early explorations into the capabilities of color, her 1980s works are cooler, noticeably calmer in mood and tonality. Where other pieces allude to a singular memory, Summer Angel, 1984, is decidedly more introspective. The present work is unquestionably the result of an artistic practice honed and reworked over time, reflective of Frankenthaler's lifelong dedication to the pursuit of variation and reinvention.

    As her practice moved toward the abstraction of natural elements, Frankenthaler became increasingly known for naming her canvases after exotic locations she visited in her travels or as a way to immortalize a certain feeling, whether grandiose or mundane. A constant signifier of her work, however, linking her earliest and latest examples, is the intimacy with which she is connected to every piece. When asked about the personal investment she has in each of her paintings, Frankenthaler once remarked, "It isn't that I want to experiment with style. I often want to experiment with the different ways I know myself."6 Summer Angel, while less depictive of an identifiable experience belonging uniquely to the artist, carries with it the temporal quality of a universally shared memory. Airy and awash with color, Summer Angel is a nuanced sentiment that recalls an unencumbered lightness of being, at once full of potential and elusive in ascribed meaning. Cloud-like forms hover gracefully along the exterior of the canvas in an exquisite equilibrium, their upward movement suggestive of a glacier or suspended fountain. The interior space, enveloped by its octagonal border, is a free-flowing estuary of violet and ultramarine acrylic, its orchestrated drips and swaths practicing a quiet yet powerful rhythm. Summer Angel possesses "... the flooded look, like that of an engulfing weather front, that characterizes much of her later work."7 Though conceived in the latter half of the artist's career, Summer Angel is still reminiscent of the tide pools Frankenthaler might have seen outside her Provincetown studio that she occupied with her then-husband Robert Motherwell, preemptive of the ebb and flow of the bodies of water which surrounded the home she would later occupy in Darien, Connecticut.

    In the same way that Summer Angel, 1984, straddles the line between ethereal and corporeal, Frankenthaler herself is at once tethered to two worlds of diverging artistic thought: Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Perhaps Frankenthaler's most influential and longstanding accomplishment was the shift in practice that focused less on the emphatic gestures of painting and instead encouraged a deeper analysis into the renditions of color on bare canvas, and the potential for unprimed canvas to house an entire range of color. Frankenthaler's breakthrough style of pouring directly onto the picture plane meant that the exterior edges of pigment bled until they achieved a visual congruity with the wove of the canvas itself, a concept that emphasized the lushness of the medium rather than the dynamism of individual brushstrokes. This softening of the thinly poured acrylic does little to deter the rigorous tempo of the present work. Instead, the viewer is engulfed in Summer Angel's lyrically profound gestures, invited to consider the fused interaction between canvas and color, and the nature of paint as a mutable tool. Boldly expressive oceanic hues accentuate the looming physicality of Summer Angel, presenting a meditative matrix that explores the depth of singular color and indistinct form. Certainly, Summer Angel succeeds in accomplishing a rare juxtaposition of spontaneity and precision. Frankenthaler eloquently points to this feat, stating, "'Gesture' must appear out of necessity not habit... I'd rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know I can do. The whole business of spotting; the small area of color in a big canvas; how edges meet; how accidents are controlled, all this fascinates me, though it is often where I am most facile and most seducible by my own talent."8

    Impressive in scale and stature, Summer Angel delicately articulates emotional and spatial depth, as full of potential as a summer sky stretched above the Mondavi Winery. Painted shortly following Frankenthaler's stay at the Mondavi home in Napa Valley, Summer Angel could comment on Frankenthaler's relaxed energy while in the company of her close friends Robert and Margrit Mondavi. Having remained in the same illustrious collection since its creation over three decades ago, Summer Angel is a true testament to the foresight and permanence of Margrit Mondavi's legacy of tastemaking. It is, in many ways, highly anticipatory in both style and technique. By the time Frankenthaler had completed Summer Angel in 1984, she was already a well-established artist in her own right, and her practice would grow to shape and redefine the abstract movement of the 20th Century, and, further, the trajection of art history.

    1. C. Armstrong, "Helen Frankenthaler's Syzygy: Line into Color, Color into Line", in Line into Color, Color into Line: Helen Frankenthaler, Paintings 1962-1987, New York, 2016, p. 20.
    2. H. Frankenthaler interview with B. Rose, in Oral History interview with Helen Frankenthaler, 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
    3. Ibid.
    4. C. Armstrong, p. 19.
    5. H. Frankenthaler interview with B. Rose.
    6. Ibid.
    7. P. Schjeldahl, "When It Pours: Works by Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis", in The New Yorker, 22 September 2014.
    8. H. Frankenthaler, quoted in K. Stiles and P. Selz (eds.), "H. Frankenthaler Interview with H. Geldzahler", in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Los Angeles, 1996, p. 32.
HELEN FRANKENTHALER (1928-2011) Summer Angel, 1984
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