Two years before the present work, Road to Messina was created, Helen Frankenthaler was regarded as the most important American woman artist of her time. Her major retrospective was organized by Eugene C. Goossen at the Whitney Museum of American Art that traveled through the United States and Europe, and was received very favorably by the critics. Later in the year, Frankenthaler was chosen as the only woman to be represented in Henry Geldzahler's ground-breaking exhibition New York Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as being included in the exhibition Twentieth-Century Art from the Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller Collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Frankenthaler entered the 1970s being lauded as a major figure of contemporary art in America.
The 1970s also represented a period of renewal for the artist, and the presence of line in Frankenthaler's paintings figured prominently in her work not seen since her monumental painting, Mountains and Sea, 1952. Whereas before, the artist was comfortable letting the pigment determine the contour of the shape, and now, she is determining the edges of the pigment. And it is visible in Road to Messina, the present work, the striations of pure, dense color are layered upon each other in a majestic effect. Her wide travels through Europe and Morocco that year are also reflected in the choice of palette in the present work.
Of Frankenthaler's technique, John Elderfield writes, "The staining of the paint, however, tends to distance and to disembody the images it creates so that, irrespective of their brightness, they seem strangely to be removed from the sharply practical world of real objects and events. Not as much objects as the shadows and echoes of objects, the images have lonely the most precarious of identities as instruments of depiction. They are continually being returned, as we look at them, to the pigmented wetness from which they were created, whose own, independent beauty holds our attention certainly as much as what they seem to describe... Color beyond ordinary; an unconstructed freedom of composition; an open, breathing surface; absolute candor in its making and in its address to the spectator: all combine to tell of a benign and idyllic, if fragile, domain of innocence and pleasure." (J. Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 11).