Up Close with Royal Fireworks

A lyrical treatise on color and form, Royal Fireworks stands at the apex of Helen Frankenthaler’s mature practice. Having shifted her chosen medium from thinned oil paints to diluted acrylics, the present work sees the artist flood her canvas with expanses of pure color, as opposed to the soak-staining method she had used in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Alternating between open fields of color washes and compressed horizontal blocks, Royal Fireworks shows Frankenthaler at a crucial turning point in her oeuvre. As John Elderfield noted in his celebrated monograph on the artist’s work: “Clearly related to the horizontal-block format is the August painting Royal Fireworks, where Frankenthaler has crossbred, as it were, the horizontal block format of Viewpoint with that of the very large 1973 pictures like Moveable Blue to produce a cluster of dense and broken horizontals along the bottom edge, with open, atmospherically suggestive expanses above. This necessarily evokes marine associations. Such associations are not irrelevant to the power this picture possesses, but the power of this picture has more to do with its pictorial forthrightness – including its forthrightness in so simply displaying such an associative format – than with its associations themselves.” (John Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York 1989, p. 255)

Morris Louis, Point of Tranquility, 1959-1960
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Art © 2020 MICA, Rights administered by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mark Rothko, Yellow and Blue (Yellow, Blue on Orange), 1955
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Art © Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This rejection of figuration and emphasis on color as a means of conjuring sentiment aligns Frankenthaler’s work with the transcendent canvases of her Abstract Expressionist forebears Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock. Building upon her predecessors’ achievements, Frankenthaler carved her own niche within this canon, deeply singular and personal to her experience yet inclusive of our own. E. A. Carmean eloquently expressed this sense in his introduction to the catalogue for Frankenthaler’s retrospective in 1989, writing: “One has the feeling that her pictures are an environment into which we look, and, in a similar way, that it is an environment, a place, where she has been.” (E. A. Carmean in: Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, 1989, p. 8)

Detail of the present work
Paul Gauguin, At the Foothill of a Mountain or the Large Tree, 1982
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Scala

Anchored by a horizontal band of pure azure, the warm orange expanse of Royal Fireworks is tempered by dusky heather tones, creating a compositional balance that permits each hue to play off the others. Deftly transitioning between thin washes and areas of richly saturated color, Frankenthaler articulates her interrogation of the picture plane with a depth of color that belies the two-dimensionality of the composition. In her words, “...my feeling [is] that a successful abstract painting plays with space on all different levels, different speeds, with different perspectives, and at the same time remains flat...for me the most beautiful pictures of any age have this ambiguity.” (The artist quoted in: Alison Rowley, Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting, New York 2007, p. 46) Combining startling spontaneity with rigorous compositional control, Royal Fireworks stands as one of the greatest of Frankenthaler’s works from this period, a testament to the artist’s mastery over the elusive and fundamental elements of painting.

Helen Frankenthaler in her New York studio, 1975
Photo © Alexander Liberman, Courtesy of The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Art © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York