"Truth comes when one is totally involved in the act of painting, somehow using everything one knows about painting materials, dreams, and feelings. Consciously and unconsciously, the artist allows what must happen to happen. That act connects you to yourself and gives you hope...The painter makes something magical, spatial, and alive on a surface that is flat and with materials that are inert. That magic is what makes paintings unique and necessary."
(Helen Frankenthaler in an interview in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1950-1959, exh. cat., Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998, p. 46)
Marking the apex of Helen Frankenthaler’s career, Arriving in Africa from 1970, with its simplistic and calming palette of blue, ochre and white, was created the year following the artist’s critical rise to stardom—when she was regarded as the most important female artist of her time. Indeed, the preceding year saw the launch of Frankenthaler’s first major retrospective, which was organized by Eugene C. Goossen at the Whitney Museum of American Art and later traveled throughout the United States and Europe where it was applauded 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.
During the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, Frankenthaler began to incorporate a more literal sense of space into the assembled forms and condensed signs that filled her canvases. As a result, her work became as much a focus on the tension between the foreground and background, as it was about the shapes and colors that her pouring technique produced. The way she maneuvered the interlocking and overlaid planes of complementary colors as she examines ideas of depth and flatness recalls the Cubist period of Picasso and the unique style of Cézanne—two artists who were a great influence on her work. In 1967, Frankenthaler said, "Color can be beautiful in terms of how it moves; yet it remains in place. If color doesn't move in space, it is only decorative." (H. Frankenthaler, quoted by J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p.184). 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 Arriving in Africa where the passages of pure, dense color abut each other in a majestic effect. Her wide travels through Europe and Morocco in 1970 are also reflected not only in the works title, but also in the artist’s chosen palette.
Arriving in Africa, with its dramatic and powerful passages of dramatic—yet calming—color, reflects Frankenthaler's desire to pursue her own path within the male dominated realm of Abstract Expressionism. The artist's signature use of staining--pouring the pigment directly onto raw canvas laid out on the floor--was inherited from Jackson Pollock, yet Frankenthaler's gestures were more fluid and harmonious than many of her male counterparts lending her work a more poetic and lyrical quality. Comprised of vivid passages of yellow, blue, green and orange, Frankenthaler allows these colors to engage in a dialogue with each other and the air around them, responding to the movement of the eye as it glides across the surface of the painting.
Of Frankenthaler's work, 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.)
The soak stain technique inherited from early pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, most notably, Jackson Pollock, was derived by pouring ribbons of oil paint laced with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvases laid down on the ground. The result was diaphanous and free-flowing forms enlivened by the vivacity of her elegant color selections. As with other masters of color field painting, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, the controlled relationship between the varying color passages and raw canvas produced a necessary tension in response the all-over, paint laden surfaces of Pollock and Mark Rothko. Clement Greenberg coined the term "Post-Painterly Abstraction" to describe the new exploration in abstract painting of staining the canvas, rather than applying paint by hand, to produce a formal solidarity and compositional levity. The result was a significant transition from the individualistic gesture of the abstract expressionists to a new focus on the relative anonymity of color and form.