Measuring almost six feet square, this large-scale canvas by Helen Frankenthaler combines great physical presence with the luminosity of pure color. Two expansive fields of paint occupy most the pictorial space, their liquid edges flowing across and through each other. Near the upper edge of the canvas and running horizontally parallel to it is a glowing, cloud-shaped massing of intermingled pink, red and gray tonalities. Most of the central portion is given over to the larger of the two fields of color, which floats above the off-white canvas and expresses emerald, lime green, olive, purple, gray, and black tonalities. Thinly applied washes of acrylic paint flow across the support surface, the color fields exhibiting rough edges and irregular shapes defined by the liquid flow of Frankenthaler’s paint.
The pigment soaks into the unprimed canvas support, a distinctive, signature feature of the Color Field style. Frankenthaler’s paint technique produced ethereal washes of color, the paint penetrating into the very weave of the material, mingling with and becoming a part of it. Color is at the very heart of this work. Frankenthaler gave it a new independence, allowing it to float free, untethered by representation or gesture.
A lively set of chromatic and light effects play across the surface of It Was There, as alternating areas of translucence, luminosity, opacity and staining of the canvas render the colors darker in some areas, lighter in others, the varying opacity determined by the thickness of Frankenthaler’s application of paint. Frankenthaler layers tone-upon-tone, with myriad lighter and darker greens, pinks, and purples, engaging and delighting the eye. Planes of color build the architecture of the work, the pigment applied with varying degrees of density, from light washes and the occasional brushstroke, to deeper, more heavily built-up areas of color. Negative areas of blank unpainted canvas alternate with the painted sections. Frankenthaler called these areas of negative space “air spaces” and they are a recurring and important aspect of her work. In It Was There they appear along the top edge of the canvas, and in the left and right upper third of the painting.
Frankenthaler’s It Was There offers the viewer the opportunity to savor an asymmetry of shape within a larger symmetry of color balance, achieving harmony of form and of light and dark through a gorgeous equilibrium of color combinations.
Although painted in acrylic, it expresses the aqueous quality so characteristic of the watercolor medium, an effect Frankenthaler deliberately sought. “She gained what watercolorists had always had—freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness” (E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 2000, p. 218).
Translucence, luminosity and opacity are qualities typically associated with watercolor, but are all on brilliant display here. Setting these off, harder-edged shapes—rectangular blocks of color, perhaps applied with a brush rather than poured or washed across the surface—define the canvas’ primary forms.
The contours of the color fields define the painting’s composition. Here is color constructed by color rather than by the act of drawing. The pigments both overlap and align along their boundary lines, without hard edges and precise margins. “The feeling-tone her paintings have projected has been the serene and beautiful, achieved by the insightful control over the elements of form: floating areas of color; occasional fountains, spurts, jets of color thrown against bare canvas; hard-edge panels or curtains of bright flat non-naturalistic color” (E. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, New York, 2000, p. 208).
Emerging out of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler became one of the most significant painters of the second half of the 20th century, defining a new style characterized by a de-emphasis on brushstroke and gesture in favor of areas of unbroken surface made up of large flat areas of solid color. She opened up new possibilities for abstract painting, while using her unique style to also make reference to figuration and landscape. A restless experimenter and innovator, “…[over] more than half a century, Frankenthaler remained a fearless explorer in the studio, investigating a remarkable range of media. She adopted acrylic paint, on canvas and paper, early on, reveling in its intensity even when thinned” (K. Wilkin, "Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011),” American Art, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2012, p. 103). Her work stands as an essential bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, offering both a new way to define and use color and new forms of nonrepresentational expression.