Like glowing landforms, luminous swaths of overlapping yellows anchor a horizontal expanse, the weight of which threatens to split the canvas in two. Held together by threads of delicate horizontal lines it is not in the markings themselves, irregular, nearly fragile, that these lines gain tensile strength, but rather in the brilliance of prismatic reds, greens, and blues, which assert their primacy. Held in precarious tension between breaking open and collapse inward, Yellow Saga demonstrates Helen Frankenthatler’s mastery of color forms. Yellow Saga, 1972, is an example of the many peaks of the artist’s celebrated artistic career. Every element that defined the glories of painting in the 1970s is alive and present in this work, narrating a saga of the issues at stake for her and for art during this time.
Beginning in the early 1960s, painting underwent a crisis of identity. The hegemony of Abstract Expressionism had been undermined first and foremost by the artist herself when in 1952, she painted the powerful Mountains and Sea, demonstrating that the new generation of painters could with a certain ease make use of the lessons of the older artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock as well as take in the most generous of modes of understanding from each other. In this work, for example, one can sense echoes of a slight gestural feel, of the painterly brush stroke not only in the horizontal striations, but also in the roughened surfaces where a nearly imperceptible white edging follows the curve of the fuller yellow expanses that create a sense of backlighting. Pollock’s line has been unwound, so to speak, and stretched incrementally from side to side, first in greens, reds, black, and touches of blue that fade out into wisps of afterthoughts.
Further, Frankenthaler takes from one who learned from her own example. Clement Greenberg, a forceful and influential critic and theorist of the period had taken Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, two artists who had lived the majority of their artistic life in Washington, D.C., away from New York (the center of artistic activity at the time), on the rounds of Manhattan galleries and artist’s studios. One of the stops was at the shared studio of Frankenthaler and Friedel Dzubas, where Louis and Noland first saw Frankenthaler’s momentous Mountain and Sea. Her delicate staining of unprimed canvas expanded and put to new uses Pollock’s own unprimed canvas work of the 1950s. Louis in particular was deeply affected and went on to create masterful works of color staining, among what came to referred to as the Unfurled series. In an act of reciprocal homage, Frankenthaler acknowledges in Yellow Saga the structure of Louis’s canvases, such as Alpha-Pi, 1960, which features rivulets of turpentine-diluted primary colors, which seemed to cascade from the edges of the canvas downward like waterfalls toward the center, leaving a great expanse of unprimed canvas utterly empty at its center. While Frankenthaler mimes Louis’s pictorial organization, she also tweaks it in ways both ingenious and fascinating. Pulling Louis’s naturally falling lines across the canvas, she nonetheless retains their grace, adding only fragmentary and disruptive paint handling here and there, shortening the lines into stacked blocks to add structure and focal point, while smearing and loosening the touch to reveal a transparency that melds touch, color, and support. But whereas Louis’s works release floods of color, Frankenthaler’s lines hold these floods at bay.
In the matter of drawing with color, there is no more adroit an artist than Frankenthaler. Here, her delicate, sensitive hand-drawn lines in their irregularity, their fragileness, and impressionistic drifting leave the trace of the artist’s hand in ways that draw the viewer in, that demand, in a sense, that he and she follow closely, come near, even as the banks of luminescence in yellow appeal to distance, pushing the viewer back in space. This push-pull in terms of beholding a work such as this is part of intensity, of its exhortation to the viewer to spend time with its complexity of expression.
In 1969, Frankenthaler was given a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, an unprecedented honor for an artist mid-career. Yellow Saga was in part a response to this exposure, an opening out toward a new direction in her work, albeit as John Elderfield points out, a work like blue Rail of 1968, had likewise spanned an emptied-out expanse in the upper register, creating a bridge between two fuller fields of color, much as Joan Miró tied two or three areas of color by line. But here, the lines are central to her structure, a practice evident in the following series of work inspired, as Frankenthaler states, from the Islamic linear decoration she had seen in Morocco during a summer visit. Line drawing per se had always been a part of Frankenthaler’s practice, but here the lines take center stage as opposed to her 1960s work were they are infused with liquescent pigment over-painting. In Yellow Saga, line is exposed, made to hold its own as it spans the emptied central area, as against the surrounding zones left and right, so that one and the other are counterpoised. The extraordinary tension between color that seems to have formed from its own pigment, being moved and guided by an unseen hand, is contrasted with the line, clearly drawn, clearly made by the hand of this extraordinary artist. Yellow Saga is a work of sumptuous color, and events built of tensions and releases. As art historian Barbara Rose wrote, Frankenthaler filled her canvas with “solemnity and grandeur that announce[d] the mature style of a great painter… full of refreshing vitality, but a vitality informed by experience” (Quoted in J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p. 228).