With her triumphant exhibition in 1952 of the pivotal Mountains and Sea (Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.), Frankenthaler introduced what would become her signature style: large washes of diluted color that dripped and spilled across the canvas. Seeking to emphasize the flatness of the support, she thinned her paint with turpentine to create translucent areas of color that soaked into the unprimed canvas, leaving elegantly flat stains. As a result, “she gained what watercolorists had always had—freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness” (Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York 2000, p. 218). The preeminent critic of the day, Clement Greenberg, coined the term 'Post-Painterly Abstraction' in the 1960s as a way to describe the merging of paint and canvas exemplified by Frankenthaler’s work, in its departure from the materiality of paint central in the work of the Abstract Expressionists. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Frankenthaler continued to paint large abstract landscapes but began to flood her canvases with color instead of soak-staining them, while also switching from thinned oil paint to diluted acrylics. In later works of the 1980s like Afternoon, Frankenthaler also began to combine her flat surfaces with more painterly textures and gestures.
The present work in particular epitomizes the flood and flow of her mature, acrylic-based work. Despite the superimposition of layers of paint, her canvas does not appear opaque or clotted. Instead, there is a sense of lightness and airy appeal to the colors, which flow evenly outward from the center. To maximize the expressive potential of each hue, their marked fluidity is sometimes interrupted by drops and areas of concentrated paint, which are executed in contrasting tones or sit in high relief on the canvas, or both, as in the case of the bright blue line that runs horizontally along the center of the present work. These impastoed areas are characteristic of Frankenthaler’s mature phase. They call attention to the disjunction between surface and paint, reminding the viewer of the flatness of the canvas and of the medium used to secure the illusion of depth and space.
Anchored horizontally by a horizontal wash of tawny copper, the entire composition exudes a heady strength. Vertical plumes of the same hue billow upwards over the sunny golden expanse, in eloquent contrast to the long slash of azure blue that balances the arrangement. The play between soft earthy washes and areas of thick impastoed pigment creates a sophisticated surface that speaks to Frankenthaler’s experimentation with the picture plane. As she articulated, “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). By harnessing the fluid nature of her signature thinned paint and combining it with a newfound interest in painterly strokes, Frankenthaler imbues her canvas with a startling complexity and vibrancy, modulating between the muted chestnut fog and the crisp staccato sapphire. The surface transitions between passages of brilliant radiance and rich color, and moments of soft and delicate handling. Taken together, these elements establish Afternoon as a culmination of Frankenthaler’s mastery over the elusive and most fundamental elements of painting.
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