DescriptionHelen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)
Acrylic on canvas
69-1/4 x 67-1/2 inches (175.9 x 171.5 cm)
Signed upper right: Frankenthaler
Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York;
Private collection, Dallas, Texas, acquired from the above, 1977;
Private collection, Florida, 1999.
Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York, "Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings," November 19-December 8, 1977.
Knoedler & Company, New York, "Frankenthaler: East and Beyond," January 8-March 11, 2011.
Andre Emmerich Gallery, Helen Frankenthaler: New Paintings, New York, 1977, n.p., illustrated in color;
John Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1989, p. 282, illustrated in color;
Knoedler & Company, Frankenthaler: East and Beyond, New York, 2011, exhibition catalogue, p. 32, illustrated in color.
HELEN FRANKENTHALER: ABSENCE OF RULES
The name Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) immediately conjures up images of radiant hues disposed in voluptuous, liquid flows - that is to say, she is usually thought of, not without reason, as a lyrical painter who uses thin color with extraordinary inventiveness. Many of the early paintings that first established Frankenthaler's reputation in the 1950s could, in fact, be accurately described this way, as could many of the subsequent works that sustained that reputation, made over the half century of her long and productive life. But just as Frankenthaler continuously experimented with different disciplines and mediums - painting on canvas and paper, an enormous variety of printmaking techniques, sculpture, ceramics, and sets and costumes for a ballet, among other ventures - she never settled for the familiar or the comfortable and never made only one kind of picture. Throughout her working life, she explored a wide variety of conceptions of what a painting could be, challenging her own assumptions and striving to surprise herself. Her earliest works bear witness to an ardent young woman newly graduated from Bennington, armed with a thorough understanding of Cubist structure, eagerly testing herself against the most adventurous art being shown in New York at the time. We can follow her exploring the implications of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, and Jackson Pollock, sometimes all in the same painting, and in doing so, discovering her own originality. At a time when most ambitious painters of Frankenthaler's generation were in de Kooning's thrall, she famously concluded that "You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock..."
As her point of departure, Frankenthaler used Pollock's radically unconventional method of working on unstretched, unprimed canvas placed on the floor, approaching the painting from all sides, and responding to whatever emerged in the course of making, rather than deciding on an orientation or an image before beginning to paint. She rejected Pollock's poured and dripped of skeins of paint, however, employing a wide range of tools, rags, and her hands, among other things, to manipulate - or encourage - thinned-out paint to flow across the canvas, drawing and painting simultaneously. At times, it seems as if the fluid configurations she achieved through these means had been willed into being, rather than created by direct paint handling. The resulting works were at once bold and intimate, distinguished by their uninhibited drawing and by their disembodied, transparent sweeps of color. Frankenthaler's early paintings had the large scale and authority that characterized the work of her immediate predecessors, the Abstract Expressionists, but they also had the immediacy and luminosity of watercolors. In contrast to the layered, wet-into-wet, surfaces of gestural Abstract Expressionism, her stains of diluted paint, soaked into the unprimed canvas, revealed few traces of the history of their application. Color and pigment seemed weightless, transparent, and disembodied, as if these pictures had come about through the sheer force of Frankenthaler's personality.
While she was still in her twenties, these remarkable canvases established Frankenthaler as a painter to be taken seriously and watched with great attention - an extraordinarily young age for this kind of recognition, in an era when artists were supposed to spend years maturing, before presenting their efforts to the public. Even more surprising, in 1960 - she was thirty one - she had a survey exhibition at the Jewish Museum, a significant achievement for any artist, but especially noteworthy for a young woman in an art world dominated by seasoned, intense men who thrived on debate and argument. Yet probably because Frankenthaler was a young woman, critics wrote about the delicacy and tender color of her work, praising its "femininity." The exhibition certainly included paintings that could be characterized as delicate and tender ("feminine" is more questionable) but there were others that might have been better termed "muscular" or "vigorous" or just plain "tough." One writer, however, fully understood the complexity of the artist's accomplishment: the poet and curator, Frank O'Hara, the author of the exhibition's perceptive catalogue essay.
"Frankenthaler is a daring painter," O'Hara wrote. "She is willing to risk the big gesture, to employ huge formats so that her essentially intimate revelations may be more fully explored and delineated, appear in the hot light of day. She is willing to declare erotic and sentimental preoccupations full-scale and with full conviction. She has the ability to let a painting be beautiful, or graceful, or sullen, and perfunctory, if these qualities are part of the force and clarity of the occasion."
For the rest of her life as an artist, Frankenthaler would explore wildly varied moods and emotional temperatures in her work, an adventurous approach that also informs her comments about her methods and goals. Speaking about what she referred to in ironic quotes as her "process," she said she thought of herself as "a spacemaker," with color as "the first message on the picture plane... It's born out of idea, mood, luck, imagination, risk, into what might even be ugly; then I let it tell me what might/should be used next, until I get the light and order that satisfies to perfection. The result is color and space and, I hope, a beautiful message." Frankenthaler always remained open to unexpected results. "Instead of masterly," she said, "you want to be - well, two words I frequently use - clumsy or puzzled."
In spite of her fundamental disdain for the conventional or the familiar in her art, Frankenthaler never rejected that much maligned notion, beauty, but as her notion of the beautiful was not limited to the lyrical mode for which she was best known. Many of her most potent, memorable works, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were celebrations of what she called her "darker palette:" resonant, deep-hue, often dramatically lit paintings, such as Tantric, 1977. In them, transparent swipes of pale hues and zones of magical radiance seem to emerge from pools of darkness. In contrast to the often biomorphic or organic shapes of the color stains in her preceding paintings, Frankenthaler's works of the late 1970s subtly emphasize geometry, loosely reiterating the vertical and horizontal axes implied by the edges of the rectangular canvas. Because of the combination of this disciplined, lucid approach to composition and dark, often somber hues, paintings such as Tantric seem to propose a new kind of classicism within Frankenthaler's oeuvre, perhaps even a new kind of reference to the art of the past.
If Frankethaler's exuberant orchestrations of chromatic color bear witness to her admiration for modern masters such as Henri Matisse or Pierre Bonnard, the resonant hues and expressive chiaroscuro of works such as Tantric seem to pay homage to the old masters. Starting in the 1950s and continuing until the last years of her life, Frankenthaler frequently used paintings she was engaged by as the basis for her own work, responding freely not only to works by Matisse, but also by Titian, Jacopo Bassano, Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, and her friend David Smith, among many others. Sometimes, as the titles can reveal, her starting point was a specific work that she knew well and found compelling; sometimes it was a more general impression of an artist. Whatever the stimulus, the result was never literal but rather, even in paintings based on specific sources, a kind of uninhibited, free-wheeling improvisation that distilled her accumulated experience of other works of art into her own distinctive visual language. While it is not possible to correlate Tantric with any particular source work, it is tempting to see the painting's rich play of dark and light as an expression of Frankenthaler's often expressed love of Rembrandt. (The connection is reinforced by her having made several similarly dramatic works within a few years of Tantric, Helmet, 1978, and Portrait of Margaretha Trip, 1980, pictures that, as their titles suggest, are overt homages to specific paintings by Rembrandt.) Certainly, works such as Lucretia, 1666, (Minneapolis Institute of Art) or Man Seated Reading at a Table in a Lofty Room, 1628-30, (formerly attributed to Rembrandt, National Gallery, London), with their enveloping darkness and geometric zones of light, suggest affinities with the overall structure and luminous planes of Tantric.
The association of Tantric with works by Rembrandt cannot be proven, but the visual evidence suggests that the connection is plausible, perhaps more so, despite the painting's title, than with images associated with Tantric yoga. We might speculate that the composition, with its centralized salmon pink element, could be a response to the symmetry and centrally placed geometric motifs of Tantric paintings, but Frankenthaler's interest in works of that type seems to have been casual, at best, and her titles always came after the fact, provoked by the completed painting itself rather than vice versa. Of course, we cannot rule out the effect of a chance encounter - a postcard sent by a friend or a gift of a book of reproductions, both of which have triggered "source paintings." Ultimately, it hardly needs noting, the power of Tantric rests not in its possible ties to other works of art, but in Frankenthaler's ability to transform a flood of bottomless black-brown, some oversized strokes of luminous rose-taupe and suave orangey-pink, a few delicate lines of chalky blue, and a scattering of intimate deep red finger marks into a new mysterious, allusive whole.
It is worth noting, however, that no matter how much we probe Frankenthaler's motivations and intentions, seeking clues within her work, she herself insisted that she had no preconceptions, but instead strove always to remain open to all possibilities. Her conversation, like her paintings, reveals an almost mystical sense of submission to the demands of the emerging picture, a willingness to trust her accumulated experience of picture-making and jettison all comforting, previously established ideas in order to respond to the unlooked-for suggestions that arose in the course of working. Many artists refer to this state as "getting out of one's own way," a necessary condition, they feel - as Frankenthaler did - to achieving anything personal or significant. It's a kind of aesthetic high wire walking. There is always risk of complete failure, but as assured paintings such as Tantric attest, there can be great rewards, upon reaching the other side of the chasm.
Frankenthaler eloquently described this intuitive process in the early 1980s: "The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible - metallic paint or something ugly or pouring a huge quantity of paint on thin paper. It's all about risks, deliberate risks. The picture unfolds, leads, unravels as I push ahead. Watching it develop, I seize it. More and more I feel led into the manifestation of how it must look. Despite the fact that it exists because I am the insistent developer of how it will look, it must appear as it does. As always, from the 1950s on, I must be ready to work with what is insisting on emerging and use it and take it from there."
New York, March 2016
i. Frankenthaler, in Henry Gelzahler, "An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler," ArtforInum, October 1965, p. 37.
ii. Frank O'Hara, "Helen Frankenthaler," exhibition catalogue, The Jewish Museum, 1960, in Frank O'Hara: Art Chronicles 1954-1966. New York: George Braziller, 1975.
iii. Frankenthaler, exchange with the author, 1983-84.
iv. Frankenthaler, in Cindy Nemser, "Interview with Helen Frankenthaler," Arts, November 1971, p.53.
v. Frankenthaler, exchange with the author, 1983-84
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