NEW YORK – “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once,” Helen Frankenthaler told art critic David Sylvester in 1961. “One really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.” Her sentiment beautifully articulates something of the overall spirit of Color Field, the abstract style that Frankenthaler and painters such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski developed in the 1950s and 1960s. Opening 20 September at Sotheby's S|2 in New York, Born in a Minute: Color Field Painting from the 1950s–1970s will bring together works by these key painters.
Considered an offspring of Abstract Expressionism and the work of Jackson Pollock, Color Field painting in its earliest days was less a formal movement than it was a forward momentum – another advance in the ongoing efforts of modern artists to free painting from the strictures of representation and explore the medium’s expressive possibilities. As the name suggests, the artists took color as their subject, distilling painting to the interactions of surface and pigment. The rejection of figuration and symbolism was intended to capture a purer experience of the art itself.
While still in her early 20s, Frankenthaler relieved painting of Pollock’s convulsive gestures in order to fuse color, contour and canvas into a single event. Like Pollock, she poured paint directly from the can onto unprimed canvas so that the pigments soaked into the material; she distinguished herself from him by using brushes and rags to compose languid and graceful pools, lines and shapes. Her “soak stain” technique produced luminous, evocative pictures that brimmed with life and breath. Frankenthaler prized spontaneity over strategy. As she famously quipped, “I’d rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know I can do.”
Soon the young artist came to the attention of fellow painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who recognised in her working methods a new clarity and liberation for abstraction. As the story goes, Noland and Louis travelled from Washington D.C. to New York in 1953 to look at art, and to meet the influential art critic Clement Greenberg. It was on this trip that Greenberg showed them some paintings by Frankenthaler, then just 24 years old. One canvas in particular, her grand masterwork Mountains and Sea, 1952, deeply impressed them as a kind of map to new ways of working. Noland and Louis returned to Washington with the idea to experiment with similar staining processes of their own.
MORRIS LOUIS, ROSEATE, 1960.
The works included in Born in a Minute will show the evolution of their individual artistic directions, including Noland’s experiments with shaped canvases and geometric forms, exemplified by his Untitled, 1965, and Louis’s signature vertical color flows, as in the lyrical Roseate, 1963. Frankenthaler’s large-scale China II, 1972, possesses the aura and intelligence that marked her early achievements and is proof of the profound beauty that is created, as the artist said, when the head and the heart work in harmony.
Jennifer Krasinski has written about film, video and performance art for Artforum.com, Art in America and others. She is a recipient of a 2013 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant.