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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.
Last night I was trying to tell some friends about the film “I AM” which was released earlier this year. Unfortunately I couldn’t quite articulate how profound the message of the movie was. Clearly, this is one of the best reasons for having a blog! I AM is a movie that I could watch again and again… come to find out that it became available On Demand as of December 1st, 2011 and the DVD will be available to purchase in January of 2012 so I recommend everyone see it at least once. Here’s the trailer that will give you a glimpse of what it’s all about.
I AM is an utterly engaging and entertaining non-fiction film that poses two practical and provocative questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? The filmmaker behind the inquiry is Tom Shadyac, one of Hollywood’s leading comedy practitioners and the creative force behind such blockbusters as “Ace Ventura,” “Liar Liar,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Bruce Almighty.” However, in I AM, Shadyac steps in front of the camera to recount what happened to him after a cycling accident left him incapacitated, possibly for good. Though he ultimately recovered, he emerged with a new sense of purpose, determined to share his own awakening to his prior life of excess and greed, and to investigate how he as an individual, and we as a race, could improve the way we live and walk in the world.
Armed with nothing but his innate curiosity and a small crew to film his adventures, Shadyac set out on a twenty-first century quest for enlightenment. Meeting with a variety of thinkers and doers–remarkable men and women from the worlds of science, philosophy, academia, and faith–including such luminaries as David Suzuki, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lynne McTaggart, Ray Anderson, John Francis, Coleman Barks, and Marc Ian Barasch – Shadyac appears on-screen as character, commentator, guide, and even, at times, guinea pig. An irrepressible “Everyman” who asks tough questions, but offers no easy answers, he takes the audience to places it has never been before, and presents even familiar phenomena in completely new and different ways. The result is a fresh, energetic, and life-affirming film that challenges our preconceptions about human behavior while simultaneously celebrating the indomitable human spirit.
The pursuit of truth has been a lifelong passion for Shadyac. “As early as I can remember I simply wanted to know what was true,” he recalls, “and somehow I perceived at a very early age that what I was being taught was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” He humorously describes himself as “questioning and searching and stumbling and fumbling toward the light.” The “truth” may have been elusive, but success wasn’t. Shadyac’s films grossed nearly two billion dollars and afforded him the glamorous and extravagent A-List lifestyle of the Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker. Yet Shadyac found that more – in his case, a 17,000-square foot art-filled mansion, exotic antiques, and private jets — was definitely less. “What I discovered, when I began to look deeply, was that the world I was living in was a lie,” he explains. “Much to my surprise, the accumulation of material wealth was a neutral phenomenon, neither good or bad, and certainly did not buy happiness.” Gradually, with much consideration and contemplation, he changed his lifestyle. He sold his house, moved to a mobile home community, and started life—a simpler and more responsible life – anew.
But, at this critical juncture, Shadyac suffered an injury that changed everything. “In 2007, I got into a bike accident which left me with Post Concussion Syndrome, a condition where the symptoms of the original concussion don’t go away.” These symptoms include intense and painful reactions to light and sound, severe mood swings, and a constant ringing sound in the head. Shadyac tried every manner of treatment, traditional and alternative, but nothing worked. He suffered months of isolation and pain, and finally reached a point where he welcomed death as a release. “I simply didn’t think I was going to make it,” he admits.
But, as Shadyac wisely points out, “Death can be a very powerful motivator.” Confronting his own mortality, he asked himself, “If this is it for me – if I really am going to die – what do I want to say before I go? What will be my last testament?” It was Shadyac’s modern day dark night of soul and out of it, I AM was born. Thankfully, almost miraculously, his PCS symptoms began to recede, allowing him to travel and use his movie-making skills to explore the philosophical questions that inhabited him, and to communicate his findings in a lively, humorous, intellectually-challenging, and emotionally-charged film.
But this would not be a high-octane Hollywood production. The director whose last film had a crew of 400, assembled a streamlined crew of four, and set out to find, and film, the thinkers who had helped to change his life, and to seek a better understanding of the world, its inhabitants, their past, and their future. Thus, Shadyac interviews scientists, psychologists, artists, environmentalists, authors, activists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, and others in his quest for truth. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky, historian Dr. Howard Zinn, physicist Lynne McTaggart, and poet Coleman Banks are some of the subjects who engage in fascinating dialogue with Shadyac.
Shadyac was very specific about what he was after, wanting I AM to identify the underlying cause of the world’s ills – “I didn’t want to hear the usual answers, like war, hunger, poverty, the environmental crisis, or even greed,” he explains. “These are not the problems, they are the symptoms of a larger endemic problem. In I AM, I wanted to talk about the root cause of the ills of the world, because if there is a common cause, and we can talk about it, air it out in a public forum, then we have a chance to solve it.”
Ironically, in the process of trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, Shadyac discovered there’s more right than he ever imagined. He learned that the heart, not the brain, may be man’s primary organ of intelligence, and that human consciousness and emotions can actually affect the physical world, a point Shadyac makes with great humor by demonstrating the impact of his feelings on a bowl of yogurt. And, as Shadyac’s own story illustrates, money is not a pathway to happiness. In fact, he even learns that in some native cultures, gross materialism is equated with insanity.
Shadyac also discovers that, contrary to conventional thinking, cooperation and not competition, may be nature’s most fundamental operating principle. Thus, I AM shows consensus decision-making is the norm amongst many species, from insects and birds to deer and primates. The film further discovers that humans actually function better and remain healthier when expressing positive emotions, such as love, care, compassion, and gratitude, versus their negative counterparts, anxiety, frustration, anger and fear. Charles Darwin may be best known for popularizing the notion that nature is red in tooth and claw, but, as Shadyac points out, he used the word love 95 times in The Descent of Man, while his most famous phrase,survival of the fittest, appears only twice.
“It was a revelation to me that for tens of thousands of years, indigenous cultures taught a very different story about our inherent goodness,” Shadyac marvels. “Now, following this ancient wisdom, science is discovering a plethora of evidence about our hardwiring for connection and compassion, from the Vagus Nerve which releases oxytocin at simply witnessing a compassionate act, to the Mirror Neuron which causes us to literally feel another person’s pain. Darwin himself, who was misunderstood to believe exclusively in our competitiveness, actually noted that humankind’s real power comes in their ability to perform complex tasks together, to sympathize and cooperate.”
Shadyac’s enthusiastic depiction of the brighter side of human nature and reality, itself, is what distinguishes I AM from so many well-intentioned, yet ultimately pessimistic, non-fiction films. And while he does explore what’s wrong with the world, the film’s overwhelming emphasis is focused on what we can do to make it better. Watching I AM is ultimately, for many, a transformative experience, yet Shadyac is reluctant to give specific steps for viewers who have been energized by the film. “What can I do?” “I get asked that a lot,” he says. “But the solution begins with a deeper transformation that must occur in each of us. I AM isn’t as much about what you can do, as who you can be. And from that transformation of being, action will naturally follow.”
Shadyac’s transformation remains in process. He still lives simply, is back on his bicycle, riding to work, and teaching at a local college, another venue for sharing his life-affirming discoveries. Reflecting Shadyac’s philosophy is the economic structure of the film’s release; all proceeds from I AM will go to The Foundation for I AM, a non-profit established by Shadyac to fund various worthy causes and to educate the next generation about the issues and challenges explored in the film. When he directs another Hollywood movie, the bulk of his usual eight-figure fee will be deposited into a charitable account, as well. “St. Augustine said, ‘Determine what God has given you, and take from it what you need; the remainder is needed by others.’ That’s my philosophy in a nutshell,” Shadyac says, “Or as Gandhi put it, ‘Live simply, so others may simply live.’”
Shadyac’s enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. Whether conducting an interview with an intellectual giant, or offering himself as a flawed character in the narrative of the film, Shadyac is an engaging and persuasive guide as we experience the remarkable journey that is I AM. With great wit, warmth, curiosity, and masterful storytelling skills, he reveals what science now tells us is one of the principal truths of the universe, a message that is as simple as it is significant: We are all connected – connected to each other and to everything around us. “My hope is that I AM is a window into Truth, a glimpse into the miracle, the mystery and magic of who we really are, and of the basic nature of the connection and unity of all things. In a way,” says Shadyac, a seasoned Hollywood professional who has retained his unerring eye for a great story, “I think of I AM as the ultimate reality show.”
Written & Directed by: Tom Shadyac
The hidden beauty of pollination
Pollination: it’s vital to life on Earth, but largely unseen by the human eye. Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg shows us the intricate world of pollen and pollinators with gorgeous high-speed images from his film “Wings of Life,” inspired by the vanishing of one of nature’s primary pollinators, the honeybee.
- 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.
- What’s wrong with our world, and what can we do to make it better? – I AM
- Don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers; The intricate world of pollen and pollinators
- The Structure of Living Things; Stylish Vintage Chinese Public Health Posters
- Emotive Photographs of Elderly Animals