Under April Mood by Helen Frankenthaler beautifully captures the emotional power and painterly exuberance that has garnered the artist critical acclaim. Of an impressive scale, the present work is an arresting example of Frankenthaler’s 1970s Color Field canvases. Its expansive, saturated hues at once confront the viewer with a feeling of spontaneity and measured control.
Painted in 1974, Under April Mood comes after a series of momentous changes in Frankenthaler’s life. In 1970, she closed her 83rd street studio after a decade of working there, and in 1971 divorced from Abstract Expressionist painter, Robert Motherwell, after thirteen years of marriage. Despite these emotionally trying events, she was also riding a wave of professional successes. In 1969, she was celebrated in an impressive retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. Then, in 1972, she was the subject of a major monograph by Barbara Rose. Channeling the tumultuous emotions of this period into her work, Frankenthaler’s canvases of the early and mid-1970s have a particularly bold and expressive nature. Rose praised the artist, saying: "In her life as in her art, Frankenthaler has said that she is interested primarily in growth and development…. Her paintings are not merely beautiful. They are statements of great intensity and significance about what it is to stay alive, to face crisis and survive, to accept maturity with grace and even joy" (Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler, New York 1972, p. 105-106).
The horizontality and division of bold saturated hues in Under April Mood evoke a luscious springtime landscape, without resorting to figuration. The verdant green and cerulean blue along the bottom are complemented by the earthly tones of ruby and peach that dominate the central composition and conjure a spring sunrise, altogether resulting in a poetic and dynamic exploration of how color and form can expose the unlimited space between imagination and memory. Despite whatever associations and emotions Under April Mood might kindle, the abstract nature of the painting leaves it open to ambiguity and infinite potential meaning.
Frankenthaler’s signature form of abstraction, first employed in 1952 in her ground-breaking Mountains and Sea, was achieved by diluting her paint, allowing it to completely soak into the fibers of the raw unprimed canvas. The thinned-paint literally fused with its fibrous support, drawing focus to the canvas as an integral part of the art itself, and representing an abrupt departure from the materiality of paint central in the work of the Abstract Expressionists, in particular, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Richard Pousette-Dart. The effect she is able to achieve is color that is rich yet luminous, and forms that are voluminous without being heavy. Her innovation changed the course of art history and influenced generations of artists, beginning with Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski.
Powerful, poetic and enacted on a grand scale, Under April Mood is Frankenthaler’s resounding answer to the transcendent canvases that Rothko, Newman and Pollock introduced into the corpus of 20th century abstract painting in the late 1940s, and which came to define the American abstract vernacular. Moving beyond her predecessors achievements, Frankenthaler carved a niche within this canon, deeply singular and personal to her experience yet inclusive of our own. E. A. Carmean Jr. eloquently expressed this sense in the 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).
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