An awe-inspiring panoramic work expanding across nine feet of canvas, Helen Frankenthaler’s Newfoundland from 1975 is an irrefutable masterpiece from the artist’s highly acclaimed period of production in the mid-1970s. First unveiled at the artist's exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings in 1975 at André Emmerich Gallery in New York, Newfoundland has been treasured in the esteemed collection of Blema and H. Arnold Steinberg for nearly 40 years, and emerges today as a heroic testament to Frankenthaler’s unprecedented style and visual vocabulary.
Painted in 1975, Newfoundland 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 divorced Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell after thirteen years of marriage. Despite these emotionally trying events in her personal life, Frankenthaler found huge success concurrently in her professional life. In 1969, she was celebrated with an impressive retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and in 1972, she was the subject of a major monograph by Barbara Rose, an American art historian and critic who studied under the esteemed Meyer Schapiro. Channeling the tumultuous emotions of this period into her work, Frankenthaler hurled herself into her canvases, those of the 1970s revealing a particularly bold and tempestuous nature. Barbara Rose praised the artist: “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 and allowing it to completely soak into the fibers of the raw, unprimed canvas. The thinned paint literally fused with its fibrous support, drawing attention to the canvas as an integral part of the art itself, and representing an abrupt departure from the materiality of paint central to the work of the Abstract Expressionists. The effect she is able to achieve is color that is rich yet luminous, voluminous yet light. The insistence upon the surface of the work, as well as an all-over composition, ties Frankenthaler inextricably to predecessors and peers Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Barnett Newman, all of whom pushed the boundaries of their paintings literally and figuratively. John Elderfield writes: “No longer are corners and edges ignored. But since image and painting surface are coextensive now – unrolling horizontally out from the center – the corners and edges are less boundaries than before. They had previously been neutralized by being ignored. Now they are expanded. As with Newman, especially, the pictorial space seems to resonate even beyond the limits of its physical support.” (John Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 87-88)
Eddies of royal blue plunge into washes of aquamarine, surging together in undulating passages of ethereal blues and teals. The thinned paint, which reveals varying tones of color, reveals its delicacy in the subtle bleeding edges, in which a darker or heavier blue asserts itself against the more diaphanous ground. Gossamer streaks of cerulean and violet shock through this watery abyss in an exquisite, tantalizing rhythm of pigment. Frankenthaler balances the dominant cool colors of Newfoundland with bright passages of coral and ochre in the upper register of the canvas. Such juxtaposition of warm earthy tones against the nuances of deep marine blue allude to a seascape, and indeed the title Newfoundland - taking its name from the Canadian island off the east coast of the North American mainland - grounds this painting in a very real physical, coastal place. The tenuous relationship between landscape and abstraction recalls this suggestive marriage previously explored by artists including Joseph Mallord William Turner, Claude Monet, and Willem de Kooning.
Mesmerizing in its tides of blue – light, dark, dense, smooth, and green – Newfoundland is Frankenthaler’s resounding answer to the muscular compositions of the Abstract Expressionists from the 1940s and 50s, whose furious and gestural works defined the artistic vernacular of that time. Pushing beyond her predecessors’ achievements, Frankenthaler carved a niche within this canon that is at once deeply singular and highly personal. E. A. Carmean Jr. eloquently expresses this sense in the introduction to the catalogue of Frankenthaler’s retrospective: “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.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art (and travelling), Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, 1989, p. 8)
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