Stephen Ongpin Fine Art

Date 1981

Period 20th century

Medium Acrylic on paper, Pastel on canvas

Dimension 27.9 x 38.1 cm (11 x 15 inches)

Helen Frankenthaler produced a large and varied body of vibrant works on paper – drawn in ink, crayon, gouache, watercolour, oil, acrylic and pastel - throughout her long and storied career. Her drawings have been aptly described as ‘among her most spontaneous and personal works’ and were almost always produced as autonomous works in their own right, rather than as preparatory exercises towards paintings or prints. As early as 1967, Frankenthaler was stressing the significance of drawing as well as colour in her work: ‘My conscious interest was more in drawing and the drawing of color than in color alone.’

As the art historian and curator John Elderfield has noted of Frankenthaler’s unique works in watercolour, acrylics or gouache, ‘her works on paper…after the early 1970s are conceived within the discipline of painting to a greater extent than they were before. As a result they usually seem more finished and perfected than the earlier works on paper; but they also seem more like paintings than drawings and therefore more demanding than before of comparison with the larger paintings, of which they can seem at times somewhat too beautifully finished and perfected variants…The vast majority of the very many works on paper that Frankenthaler has made since the early 1970s are superb within their own terms. Some are superb within painting’s terms too. Some, which are the most successful of all, are those whose own terms are not painting’s, not entirely.’

The first owners of the present sheet were Barbara (1933-2018) and Ernest (1932-2021) Kafka, an intellectual couple from New York who spent their summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Kafkas befriended several members of the vibrant local artistic community in Provincetown, notably Frankenthaler and her husband Robert Motherwell, as well as Lucas Samaras and Frank Stella. (Frankenthaler had first visited Provincetown in 1957, and established a studio there in 1961, returning every summer that decade.) The close friendship between Frankenthaler and Barbara and Ernest Kafka led the artist to gift several works, on both paper and canvas, to the couple. Drawn in acrylic on paper in July 1981, the present sheet was given by the artist four months later to Ernest Kafka, on the occasion of his 49th birthday.

As the art historian Karen Wilkin has noted of the artist’s works on paper of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ‘Frankenthaler places unprecedented emphasis on inflected expanses of color, on nuances of dark and light, of transparency and opacity, and on a new, heightened physicality. The impact of these pictures comes neither from drawing nor from graphic configurations, as in the works of the 1950s and 1960s, but rather from the fact of painting and the special qualities of paint...Some of the new painterliness of Frankenthaler’s works on paper of the last ten years is the result of her using acrylic paint but without [any] additives...Frankenthaler’s works on paper have always demonstrated her dialogue with her materials: the transparency of her watercolors of the 1950s or the haloing stains and declarative shapes of her oils on paper of the 1960s were expressive of the peculiarities of their media. The new surface variation of her works on paper of the past decade is her response to acrylic’s properties. Thinned, it flows and is as transparent as watercolor; thick, it holds its shape and retains the imprint of the tool that manipulates it, like oil. Yet it is more intense than watercolor when thinned, and unlike oil, it produces no encircling stain…These are sensuously worked paintings on paper that combine the immediacy, clarity, and directness of Frankenthaler’s most transparent early works with a new, vigorous physicality.’

Date: 1981

Period: 20th century

Medium: Acrylic on paper, Pastel on canvas

Signature: Signed and dated 22 July ’81 Frankenthaler in pencil at the lower right.
Signed, dated and dedicated 2 Dec ’81 / Happy Birthday Dear Erni! / Love Helen in pencil at the lower left.

Dimension: 27.9 x 38.1 cm (11 x 15 inches)

Provenance: Gifted by the artist in December 1981 to Ernest and Barbara Kafka, New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts
Their posthumous sale (‘A Way of Life: The Collection of Barbara and Ernest Kafka’), New York, Sotheby’s, 20 May 2022, lot 265.

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Stephen Ongpin Fine Art

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