Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Haze’, 1984, Sotheby's

Property from an Important American Collection

From the Catalogue
“From the very earliest to the most recent published statements, two interrelated themes consistently arise when Helen Frankenthaler speaks about her painting practice. One is spatial ambiguity and the other is landscape.” (Alison Rowley, Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting, p. 45)

An enthralling example of Helen Frankenthaler’s mature “abstract climates,” Haze literalizes concept through form by presenting the viewer with a scene in which suggestions of form and landscape are visible but blurred, preventing evident shapes from emerging while hinting at their existence. With the color field technique that she pioneered, the present work mimics the phenomenon in nature central to its own subject, as it softens and heightens the ambiguity of forms that lie ahead.

The artist’s signature abstraction was something she executed through the process of diluting paint with turpentine, allowing it to fully soak into the fibers of a raw canvas. The thinned-paint would thus fuse with its material support, drawing focus to the canvas as an integral part of the art itself. Debuted in 1952 with Frankenthaler’s masterpiece, Mountains and Sea, the technique represents a departure from the materiality of paint pivotal to the prevailing artists of the time – notably Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Richard Pousette-Dart.

Unlike the more violent or distorted abstractions employed by her male counterparts, Frankenthaler’s approach was delicate, ethereal and obscured the line between paint and subject. The effect she was able to achieve was rich yet luminous color and forms that play with the consciousness of space. The singularity of this gesture was felt by many and therefore constitutes a milestone in art history, as reflected by a generation of artists she influenced, beginning with Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski.

With poetic blues and intermittent dabs of soft colors, Haze evokes the stillness of a boat surrounded by fog at dawn or the lulling view of a rainy day contemplated from a misty window. Nonetheless, the weight of Frankenthaler’s craft stems from the tendency to conjure and deny such images simultaneously. As quoted by Alison Rowley in Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting (p. 46), the artist states: “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.” It is the feeling that the work is somehow purposefully incomplete, or holding something back in quasi-existential fashion that enthralls the viewer to continue searching for meaning among the shapes.

Made a year before Frankenthaler’s historic solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and just five years before her Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Haze is made at the culmination of her artistic career and stands as a prime example of her groundbreaking explorations.
—Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed; titled and dated 1984 twice on the reverse

André Emmerich Gallery, Inc., New York
Adam Middleton Gallery, Dallas
Private Collection
Sotheby's, New York, 20 November 1996, Lot 135
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

About Helen Frankenthaler

A second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Helen Frankenthaler became active in the New York School of the 1950s, initially influenced by artists like Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock. She gained fame with her invention of the color-stain technique—applying thin washes of paint to unprimed canvas—in her iconic Mountains and Sea (1952), a motivating work for Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and other Color Field painters who emerged in the ’60s. Her own canvases, however, often evoked elements of landscape or figuration in the shaping of their forms. “My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates,” she once said. “They're not nature per se, but a feeling.” From 1958 to 1971, she was married to fellow Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, who, like Frankenthaler, worked in symbolic painted gestures—only her paintings were almost always visibly improvised from start to finish. As poet and critic Frank O’Hara wrote in 1960, “she is willing to risk everything on inspiration.” In addition to painting, Frankenthaler also made ceramics, welded steel sculptures, and set designs, but the related medium that most attracted her, and in which her achievement came the closest painting, was printmaking—especially the creation of woodcuts, hers counting among the greatest of contemporary works in that medium.

American, 1928-2011, New York, New York, based in New York and Darien, Connecticut