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Helen Frankenthaler was one of my all time favorites. She painted extraordinarily beautiful oversized canvases full of richly pigmented color fields.
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Helen Frankenthaler | Push Past Abstraction
In 1953 Helen Frankenthaler, who died this week at age 83, received a visit from Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, two artists from Washington who were stuck in an Abstract Expressionist rut. In her studio they saw “Mountains and Sea,” of the year before, a characteristically abstract work painted by pouring pigment onto a canvas laid on the floor.
The poured-paint technique had been pioneered by Jackson Pollock a few years earlier, but in this work the 24-year-old Frankenthaler made it her own. In place of the older artist’s looping and whipping lines of gray, black and tan, her imagery consisted of spreading pools and washes of luxuriant pinks, blues and greens nudged here and there with a sponge. The painting was a revelation to the two men—a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible,” Louis later said. Her novel technique, combined with a chromatic freedom and mastery unprecedented in recent American art, helped launch them, and others, on their own paths of color abstraction, thus ultimately changing the course of American art.
It’s an oft-told tale and one that’s true in every respect. Except that, to the extent that it’s used to sum up Frankenthaler’s achievement as one of the most important American artists of our time, it tells only part of the story. For over the course of a six-decade career, Frankenthaler jump-started American painting not once, but twice.
Frankenthaler belonged to the second generation of the New York School, whose guiding light was the critic Clement Greenberg. Greenberg held that the essence of modern painting was the expunging of all references to the visible world and an emphasis on painting’s purely formal elements—the flatness of the canvas support and the colors arrayed across it.
Frankenthaler’s works were true to this so-called formalist aesthetic. You can’t emphasize the painting’s support more emphatically than she did with her technique of staining, which bonds the pigment to the warp and weft of the canvas. Yet she was never limited by formalism’s dictates, unlike some of her colleagues.
For example, there were audible gasps in 1977 when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened a retrospective of Noland’s work. Along the ramp were arrayed a selection of the artist’s signature abstractions—multicolored targets, chevrons, stripes and the like. Time had not been kind to these icons of 1960s and ’70s art. They were beautiful, to be sure, yet suddenly they seemed plagued by a decorative emptiness. Overnight, it seemed, heroic American abstraction had devolved to nothing more than college-dorm eye candy. Greenberg was a brilliant critic, but his view that the proper subject of art was art itself was too narrow and insubstantial a foundation on which to erect an enduring vision.
Frankenthaler herself sailed dangerously close to this aesthetic reef. This was particularly true in the ’60s, when paintings consisting of a few simple forms and a heavy use of primary colors created a kind of Marimekko effect—works that made attractive backdrops but didn’t compel a long gaze.
But three things saved her. One was her engagement with nature. Art needs to be about life; otherwise, it’s just occupational therapy. For all its abstractness, “Mountains and Sea” is fundamentally a landscape painting, and nature—its forms, its moods and above all its unbridled power—remained a recurring metaphor in Frankenthaler’s art.
Then, beginning in the early ’70s with “Nature Abhors a Vacuum,” her work began to change. Basso notes appeared with the introduction of deeper tones—dark purples and umbers, grays and even black. This adjustment amounted to a kind of adult supervision of her otherwise boisterous and flighty palette. Her paint handling became more nuanced and textured. These combined changes made her work more emotionally resonant and visually absorbing. Rather than simply reveling in color’s hedonistic pleasures, she seemed to be striving to express profounder truths. In this way she rescued abstract painting, making it once again an instrument of meaningful expression rather than an end in itself.
Frankenthaler did not limit herself to working on canvas. A retrospective of her prints at the National Gallery in the 1990s showed her to have been as innovative in this medium as she had been in painting. She even tried her hand at sculpture. And she remained on top of her game well into her 70s. Her extraordinary “Warming Trend”—nature again—from 2002 in the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Mo., is a seven-by-eight-foot work consisting of diaphanous veils of blue and lavender, here and there inflected with the smallest touches of red and pink. The effect is of looking into a pool, as if Frankenthaler were painting her response to one of Claude Monet’s water lilies.
Frankenthaler’s achievement is to have put the language of abstraction to the service of art’s historic need to address large ideas. As such she occupies an enduring place in the pantheon of American masters. Yet her legacy already seems in peril. There hasn’t been a full-dress retrospective in more than 20 years, and her gallery, Knoedler & Co., suddenly closed last month, leaving no forum for the regular exposure of her work. She deserves better. Greatness abhors a vacuum.
- Helen Frankenthaler; Renowned abstract expressionist died this week at the age of 83. Her imagery consisted of spreading pools and washes of luxuriant pinks, blues and greens nudged here and there with a sponge.
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