Lot 128
  • 128

Helen Frankenthaler

500,000 - 700,000 USD
1,510,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Helen Frankenthaler
  • China II
  • signed; titled and dated August 1972 on the stretcher
  • acrylic on canvas


The Waddington Galleries II, London
William Pall, New York
Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., Collection, New York
Sotheby's, New York, November 4, 1987, lot 90
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale 


London, The Waddington Galleries II, Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings, March 1973, illustrated in color
Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art; Seattle Art Museum; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1969-1974, April - November 1975, cat. no. 13, n.p., illustrated in color
New York, S|2, Born in a Minute: Color Field Painting from the 1950s-1970s, September - October 2014, cat. no. 1, pp. 2, 8, 14-15 and 17, illustrated in color


John Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 232 and 235, illustrated in color

Catalogue Note

China II is an extraordinary example of Helen Frankenthaler’s achievements that distinguish her as a major contributor to contemporary art history. Though she was initially identified as one of the Abstract Expressionists, the terms 'Color Field Painting' or 'Post Painterly Abstraction' have been used to more aptly describe her style. Frankenthaler is principally known for her use of a soak-stain painting technique whereby she applied washes of thinned paint onto unstretched, unprimed canvases laid on the ground.  Such a practice resulted in colors and hues more closely resembling those seen in watercolor painting.  Not only did this technique allow the viewer to see the canvas through the paint, but it also allowed for a new spectrum of colors to come to life which were not previously available with the mere application of oil or acrylic paint onto primed canvases.  

China II is a visually arresting example of Frankenthaler’s oeuvre as one is immediately struck by the visual paradox presented by combining a bold band of paint across the bottom of the canvas with more fluid, amorphous forms in the upper portion of the canvas. By creating a piece with such distinct forms, it becomes the shapes and their edges that carry the compositional weight of the work rather than the combination of the forms onto the totality of the canvas. Though the different forms are distinct and framed by the untouched white canvas, a single touch of the green form in the center of the canvas unties the bottom band of the work to the upper amorphous shapes. By connecting all painted portions of the piece, Frankenthaler creates a poetic gesture that lends to the congruity of this work. This harmony helps reduce the visual impact of the red and blue forms of color, allowing them to be present, but not dominate as one may expect them to be as they are the large and bright.

Though China II’s subject is open to interpretation, it seems that the red band is providing the ground from which what could be hills or mountains to grow from. It is this type of suggestion from Frankenthaler’s work that truly sets it apart from her contemporary’s as she is able to evoke a sense of “place.”  E.A. Carmean Jr. eloquently expressed this sense in the introduction to the catalogue for Frankenthaler's widely anticipated retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1989; “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.” This sentiment helps lend to the intimate nature of many of Frankenthaler’s works. Though large in scale and bold in color, there is a sense that she is having a deliberate dialogue with the paint and the canvas in order to create a work that is not only a manifestation of her process, but also a reflection of place that she has been, dreamt, or imagined.

Though China II is certainly abstract, the linearity of the red band along the bottom helps ground our eyes and provide a context by which to understand and interpret the work. A similar visually bold statement can be seen in Nicolas de Staël's Still Life on a Green Background (194). Both works serve the same purpose: to give a weight and presence to the rest of the forms in the work that would otherwise be left to float, without meaning, on a canvas. In this sense, Frankenthaler has beautifully rendered a scene in which the viewer is invited to loose themselves in the abstract, imaginative world, while also being brought back to life and grounded by the intensity of the bold forms.