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    Description

    Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
    Leprechaun, 1991
    Acrylic on canvas
    34-1/2 x 57-1/2 inches (87.6 x 146.1 cm)
    Signed lower right: Frankenthaler
    Signed, titled, dated, and inscribed on the reverse: Leprechaun / 1991 / AC / H Frankenthaler '92

    PROVENANCE:
    Knoedler Gallery, New York;
    Private collection, New Jersey, acquired from the above, circa 1991.

    Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is one of the most important and most recognizable figures in American art. She is renowned for her abstract paintings and her central place in the art scene of the 1950s and '60s. During this time, Frankenthaler developed the Abstract Expressionist movement with painters like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Franz Klein. She achieved a level of recognition from museums and institutions that was unusual for a young artist at the time, especially a young female artist. She held her first survey exhibition at the Jewish Museum at the age of thirty-one. Frankenthaler placed herself at the center of the modern art world and created a body of work that entered the canon of art history in her own lifetime.

    Still, Frankenthaler reinvented herself and her practice. She was at the forefront of modern art in the '50s and '60s but she refused to be defined by these years. Frankenthaler was involved with the critic Clement Greenberg from 1950 to 1955 while he translated the principles of Abstract Expressionism into words. Later, she married her fellow abstract painter, Robert Motherwell. But as the abstract art world changed, Frankenthaler changed with it. Pollock died in a drunk-driving accident in 1956, Frankenthaler and Motherwell divorced in 1971 and abstract painting took new directions in the years that followed. Rather than continue to paint in the style of the mid-century, Frankenthaler explored new styles. Rather than remain in her storied past, she continued to paint and went on to influence a new generation of abstract painters.

    In the 1990s, Frankenthaler found herself at the forefront of an entirely new abstract art scene. Frankenthaler and the Abstract Expressionists had laid the groundwork for a robust American school of abstract painting and their work bore fruit into the 1990s, 2000s and even today with artists like Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keiffer, Sterling Ruby and Julian Schnabel -- to name just a few of her heirs. Frankenthaler was one of the founding members of the Abstract Expressionist movement and her works from that period are readily identifiable. But the artist subverted expectations and continued to innovate.

    In 1991, Frankenthaler explored her changing role in the masterful Leprechaun. In this painting, hard lines of dark green dissipate into a fog of white tones, which in turn modulate as they move farther towards the edges of the canvas. These wispy tones retain hints of the dark green core as they move to the left and checked definitively by brighter, more joyful shades of green as they move to the right. These subtle, layered movements along the bottom half of the painting are reflected overhead. Marks of red paint move in a parabola from the upper-left- of the painting to the upper-right. They appear as though they had been thrown from something outside the frame or as though they had jumped themselves. These marks of red paint meet joyful yellow-orange swashes in the upper-right. The red and the orange interlock at several moments, with the former infiltrating the latter, but the bright tones generally overpower the darker ones with their vevre. Leprechaun exudes a sense of lightness and vitality. The composition is dynamic as movements happen simultaneously and in multiple directions.

    In truth, Frankenthaler experimented throughout her career. She painted her earliest abstractions in an almost Cubist style in the 1950s. Frankenthaler built these early compositions from hard-lined forms and only gradually introduced color, organic gesture and subtle gradation. Next, she began laying her canvases on the floor of her studio and dripping paint directly onto them. Frankenthaler borrowed this technique from her fellow Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock, but eschewed his aggressive performance of the technique. Frankenthaler balanced the vigor that comes from pouring paint directly onto canvas with the delicacy of retouching it with her brush and in a few cases, her fingers. This balance between vigor and delicacy can be seen in her masterpieces from the mid-century as well as later pieces. In Leprechaun, red paint appears to have been flung and a bold stroke of orange slides down the right-hand side of the canvas. Frankenthaler built this paint from a combination of chance and retouching. She added to the streaks of red and orange after they had hit her canvas. Frankenthaler's drip painting is both spontaneous and measured.

    The photographer Ernest Haas captured Frankenthaler using this technique in her studio in 1969. Frankenthaler moves indiscriminately from the studio floor to the canvas in these photographs. In some, she takes care not to touch the canvas and its freshly applied paint. In others, she sits directly on the canvas and its emerging composition. Frankenthaler pours entire cans of paint in one photograph but takes great care to merge lines between forms with her finger in the next. Haas captured the artist's practice and in so doing, he captured her versatility.
    Frankenthaler refused to be defined by any single technique, let alone one that was associated with another painter. She borrowed the drip painting technique from Pollock but developed her own "soak stain" technique. Frankenthaler thinned her oil and acrylic paints with turpentine and applied it to unprimed canvas. This gave her paint the look of watercolor and integrates it more completely into her canvases. With this innovative soak stain technique, the artist achieved a dazzling array of effects. She could manipulate her paint to appear hazy, limpid and dreamlike. Then, she could apply paint by dripping it onto the canvas, creating layers of surreal effects as well as technical bravura. This combination of techniques contributes to the sense of balance in Frankenthaler's paintings. In Leprechaun, for example, thrown paint dissolves into the thin, foggy background. The hard green core at the center of the composition contrasts sharply and productively with these ethereal tones. Frankenthaler set herself up for infinite experimentation. With endless possibilities for formal and technical innovation, as well as a general restlessness, she could reinvent herself for decades to come.

    By the 1990s, Frankenthaler had achieved two kinds of success. She had won recognition for her role in the Abstract Expressionist movement early in her career but perhaps more impressively, she had broken free from the expectations that this placed upon her later in her career. The artist continued to innovate long past the days of Abstract Expressionism and her new contemporaries noticed. "Ms. Frankenthaler is not the kind of abstract painter who replicates a carefully designed trademark image from picture to picture," the art critic Karen Wilkin wrote with admiration in 1989. Frankenthaler explored in the same way she painted. That is to say she explored in layers, with different gestures in different directions all at once. Frankenthaler controlled everything from her colors and forms to her moods and even the thinness of her paint. When the artist had too much control, she simply gave it up and let the paint fall where it may. The cumulative effect of these choices was liberating. "Each of her paintings is a separate conception," Wilkin wrote. Frankenthaler considered every one of these elements in every one of her later paintings. Each is a separate conception and indeed, a world unto itself.

    Frankenthaler's fellow painters noticed as well as her critics. The artist's new contemporaries looked to her for inspiration, not merely as an Abstract Expressionist but as a central figure in the new abstract art movement of the 1990s. Gerhard Richter ushered in the decade with a series of abstract paintings, Forest, and a series of portraits, Isa, that literally blurred the lines between abstraction and figuration. Abstract Expressionism was a thoroughly American movement based in New York but abstraction became more international at the turn of the century. As she painted into the next century, Franknethaler's influence spread across the world with a new generation of abstractionists. Richter exhibited in New York but executed some of his most important works in his native Germany. In 1991, the same year Frankenthaler painted Leprechaun, he completed his first Coloured Mirror paintings on glass as a commission for the Hypovereinsbank in D├╝sseldorf. Richter's compatriot, Anselm Keiffer, painted some of his finest abstract works at the same time and exhibited them on both sides of the Atlantic. Abstraction underwent a global renaissance and Frankenthaler went with it.

    Frankenthaler influenced abstract painters into the twenty-first century, even after her death. Sterling Ruby, abstractionist and art-world darling, cited the artist as an inspiration for his work in 2019. "I've always been influenced by Helen Frankenthaler's application of paint as a stain," Ruby said. "It's like a ground with an absence of a brush." Ruby and a new generation of abstract painters found the same boundless inspiration in the soak stain technique that Frankenthaler did. "Her paintings truncate time," Ruby continued, "which is something I try to push within my own work." Ruby was taken with the ability of soak-stain paintings like Leprechaun to draw viewers into their worlds and hold them there, asking viewers to stay with their many gestures and subtle gradations. He tried his hand at Frankenthaler's technique in 2008 with his composition, SP51. The artist thinned his paint so completely in this work that it appears like watercolor integrated into the canvas, or like a failing eye test. SP51 is hazy, unfocused and




    Condition Report*: There do not appear to be any major condition issues.
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. Heritage does not guarantee the condition of frames and shall not be liable for any damage/scratches to frames, glass/acrylic coverings, original boxes, display accessories, or art that has slipped in frames. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2020
    18th Thursday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 3
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 4,129

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