Lot 113
  • 113

Helen Frankenthaler

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
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  • Helen Frankenthaler
  • Blue Reach 
  • signed; signed and dated 1978 on the reverse
  • acrylic on canvas 
  • 71 by 177 1/2 in. 180.3 by 450.9 cm.


André Emmerich Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1978


Overall this work is in very good condition. There is light evidence of handling along edges. The colors are bright, fresh and clean. Under raking light, faint horizontal stretcher bar impressions are visible at the right and left edges. The canvas is slightly bowed at the center. Under Ultraviolet light inspection, there is no evidence of restoration. Framed.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

An awe-inspiring panoramic work expanding nearly fifteen feet in width, Helen Frankenthaler’s Blue Reach from 1978 is an unattested masterpiece from the artist’s highly acclaimed period of production in the mid-1970s. Pools of lapis lazuli blue flood across the wide expanse of the canvas in torrent-like passages, imbuing the work with an atmospheric character and psychological power that recalls the suggestive marriage of sky and sea in J.M.W. Turner’s great watercolors. While the imagery and horizontality of this work signify landscape, Frankenthaler negates the purity of such an image by offsetting the richly saturated blue eddies with notes of burnt sienna and areas of blank canvas. Such interruptions amidst a sea of serenity function as clever structural devices that hold Frankenthaler’s willful yet delicate atmosphere of the picture plane in a state of precarious fragility. This is at once a familiar vista from our past memory that is suddenly lost to sheer abstraction, dissolved into a bleeding, beautiful abyss of pure pigment. Blue Reach is further distinguished as one of the rare large-format monochromatic works from the 1970s painted in solely blue tones. Displaying an unprecedented vigor and energy within the glowing painterly surface, this work marks a departure in Frankenthaler's oeuvre in showing a more complex and illusionistic quality where there is not just a singular sense of velocity, yet rather a centrifuge of chopped segments in which the horizontally moving paint is met with opposite force by blocks of vertical pours. Furthermore, this work reveals Frankenthaler in a moment of experimentation with her technique and process. Belying the blue integrity, the seemingly irreverent strips of umber and russet earth tones were most likely applied using a sponge with strong sweeps of motion. Elsewhere in the composition, where the paint streaks across the blank canvas leaving transparent striated tracks behind, Frankenthaler similarly moved paint forcefully across the canvas with the assistance of a sponge. The implication of this new technique is an altered relationship between pigment and canvas: rather than paint having been freely and liberally poured across the surface into organic, free-formed shapes and resting on top of the canvas, here, Frankenthaler pounds the pigment into the canvas fibers. In her own words, “As it was drying, I was working into it deeply, as never before to this extend, rubbing and correcting, adding more thing and wondering, how much more could it take?” (E. A. Carmean in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, 1989, p. 64).

Painted in 1978, Blue Reach follows 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, after thirteen years of marriage, divorced from the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. 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, pp. 105-106).

Frankenthaler’s signature form of abstraction, first employed in 1952 in her groundbreaking 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, Blue Reach  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 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” (ibid., p. 8).