Helen Frankenthaler, A Green Thought in a Green Shade (1981), © Helen Frankenthaler / courtesy Knoedler & Company

Living masters have it rough, and Helen Frankenthaler has been living as a master for over half a century. In 1952, at the age of only twenty-three, she created Mountains and Sea, an iconic painting that forever secured her place in the history of art. It was a work that at once defined Frankenthaler’s style and changed the visual texture of abstract painting. Mountains and Sea built on the achievements of Jackson Pollock with its poured paint and rolled-out canvas—but it also outdid Pollock. With its thinned pigments soaked directly into linen, it displayed a new artistic temperament, subsuming the artistic ego into forms of color that absorbed the Abstract Expressionist gesture into an all-over stain. It paved the way for an entire new school of American abstraction known as Color Field, with Frankenthaler’s experimentation leading to the lush mannerisms of Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

Unfortunately, nothing hurts a career more than an impeccable reputation, especially in the annals of modernism. Without a doubt, Helen Frankenthaler’s standing today has been diminished by her historical significance. Few would deny her importance, but the fidelity of her artistic vision, which has remained remarkably pure for half a century, has yet to receive its full due.

In a tribute to Frankenthaler’s eightieth birthday this past December, Knoedler has mounted a small survey of paintings spanning six decades, selected by Karen Wilkin from the artist’s own collection.[1] The best argument for Frankenthaler’s importance is not her textbook relevance but the authority of her work.

A Green Thought in a Green Shade (1981), the enormous work that looks back from the far wall of the gallery, comes off as a painterly ecosystem, with algae blooms swirling in a liquid medium. On one of my visits, I noticed two patrons transfixed by this painting, with their noses a few inches from the canvas for what must have been an hour. Frankenthaler employs such a masterly, easy touch that she can let her work, you might say, work on its own, with biomorphic forms bubbling up and dissolving from view not as a vision of the artist’s unconscious but rather as a vision of the canvas’s unconscious, if that’s at all possible.

American museumgoers were reminded of Frankenthaler’s particular touch over the past year. Mountains and Sea temporarily left its permanent home at the National Gallery in Washington for a multi-city tour as part of “Action/Abstraction,” an exhibition that looked at the evolution of American painting through the influence of the critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. In the court of public opinion, Frankenthaler’s reputation has been tied to Clement Greenberg’s own approval ratings, a disservice to the artist and to the historical record, as Greenberg’s theories of flatness and the direction of abstract art owe more to Frankenthaler’s development on canvas than the other way around.

And Frankenthaler’s public esteem has suffered in other ways as well. Consider her biography of family privilege, against which she never rebelled. There is also her cosmopolitan style and her physical beauty—not for nothing, the supermodel Stephanie Seymour portrayed her in the recent biopic of Jackson Pollock. Frankenthaler never bared the tortured soul that is often assumed to be at the heart of important art (one reason, perhaps, why the reputation of Joan Mitchell, a lesser contemporary of Frankenthaler’s and a notoriously foul-mouthed drinker, has recently been on the rise). There has also been Frankenthaler’s resistance to identity politics. She has made little of her position as a groundbreaking woman in the arts. This decision speaks to an inner confidence; she knows she is a groundbreaking artist, regardless of gender. And finally there is her resistance to serialism and the demands of a marketplace that says it wants newness but really seeks more of the same. She could have turned Mountains and Sea into a commodity, producing variations on the theme. Instead, she passed up ready-made labeling, packaging, and selling for a life of pure artistic pursuit.

Which was why seeing Mountains and Sea in “Action/Abstraction,” removed from its usual context in Washington, had been a delight. For such a well-known painting it is still awesome and strange, with its lyrical hints of landscape dissolving into sunspots, which further separate out into oil stains and untreated white canvas. There is an unexplainable beauty at its heart. Frankenthaler is the American Fauve, and she shares several similarities with Henri Matisse. Both artists staked their claim in color rather than tone, and both artists have been accused of bourgeois sentiment, choosing to channel their energies directly into their work rather than into their biographies. For Frankenthaler this process became quite literal. She never battled her way to a high style. There were no decades of experimentation before arriving at a signature work; her signature work began as experimentation filtered through her artistic intuition. Experimentation, in fact, has been the one quality that has defined her oeuvre as she has gone from painting to drawing to printmaking to metal sculpture to pottery and back again.

You might also say that Frankenthaler arrived on the scene at a soaking-in moment for American art. Her achievement was to develop a way to translate this mood directly to canvas. The battles against European surrealism and homegrown regionalism had been fought and won, if not in the public’s mind, then at least for its forward-looking artists of Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler never felt compelled to fight a Freudian-like death match with the Beaux-Arts in the manner of de Kooning or to channel Pollock’s Indian rain dance. To do so would have been pantomime. The language of abstraction had already evolved into a lingua franca, and it no longer required overt gesticulation. Frankenthaler purified this language in shapes and colors. Through her thinned pigments and nimble physicality, she discovered how to execute a vision on canvas that removed the evidence of artistic will and seemed to bring forward forms already buried deep in the picture plane.

Recently, in The Wall Street Journal, William Agee described Frankenthaler’s particular journey to Mountains and Sea:

In August 1952, Ms. Frankenthaler traveled to Nova Scotia, where she continued her practice of doing small landscapes. She painted in watercolor and oil on paper, working freely from nature. These studies helped to keep her limber and flexible, like a dancer or athlete tuning up or, as was the case here, a painter preparing for a major new effort.

On the afternoon of Oct. 29, back in New York, she tacked a large—roughly 7-by-10-foot—piece of untreated canvas to the floor of her studio to begin the largest painting she had ever undertaken. Her mind and her arms were filled with memories of the spectacular Cape Breton landscape. After roughing in a few charcoal marks as an initial guide, she poured highly thinned oil paint from coffee cans directly onto the canvas, as if she were drawing with color. She had no plan; she just worked, with control and discipline. At the end of the afternoon, when she had finished, she climbed on a ladder and studied the painting. She was not yet sure what she had done; she was “sort of amazed and surprised and interested.” … It soon became clear that what she had done was invent a new way of making art.

Once you understand Mountains and Sea as something altogether different from the premeditated “next step,” the unprogrammatic nature of Frankenthaler’s career-long output makes perfect sense. The catalogue that accompanies this latest Knoedler show is a delight, because it economically divides her paintings by decade, assigning a full-page studio shot to each. The 1950s photograph shows Frankenthaler with her hair loosely pulled back, her white shirtsleeves rolled up, waving her arm over the canvas like a conductor calling forth a response. Western Dream (1957), the work on display from this decade at Knoedler, is a diffuse assembly of sun shapes and pictographs resembling an accretion of graffiti, with flattened lizards and what might be a rabbit and who knows what else. There’s a little too much iconography here to work as a landscape and not enough to be read as a rebus, and so the picture never quite comes together as a whole, certainly not as well as Mountains and Sea. The image also suffers from the evidence of too much hand, too much artistic will, even with the poured-in oils.

The photograph of Frankenthaler from a decade later shows the artist taking another step back as she lets fuller fields of color bleed into the canvas through a sponge. Provincetown I (1961) takes the notion of the canvas as picture window and gives it a life of its own. The semblance of a drawn-in frame and the image it contained melts and folds into abstract shapes of blue, red, and brown. Pink Lady (1963), just two years later and now acrylic rather than oil, takes a further turn, as the paint spreads out from a center black line as if by tectonic process, without the artist anywhere in sight.

By the 1970s the internal rhythm of her paintings had shifted to a slower beat. The photograph from this period shows her walking away from a work in progress with a sheet of paper in hand while pointing back, as if issuing the watering instructions for something now growing on its own. Sphinx (1976), a closed-mouth assembly of orange, brown, and gray, really does keep its riddles to itself, perhaps a little too much, as a monument reduced to ruin.

The 1980s photograph shows Frankenthaler bending over a large canvas with a brush and paint can in hand, bringing a synthesis of stained and poured techniques to works like A Green Thought in a Green Shade, the highlight of the show. The 1990s, at least as represented here, come off rather poorly by comparison, as Snow Basin (1990) flirts with frosting, The Rake’s Progress (1991) attempts a visual pun (the paint has been scraped by the teeth of a rake), and Aerie (1995), with its looping swirls, seems too preconceived.

The current decade brings her back into her majesty. The athleticism required of her enormous earlier canvases has given way to repose and modestly sized work of great intellectual complexity. Knoedler’s 2003 exhibition of new Frankenthaler paintings demonstrated just how good she had become in the last several years, in many ways at the peak of her powers, and one of these paintings, Warming Trend (2002), has returned for this show.

“What I want,” Matisse famously said, “is an art of balance, purity, an art that won’t disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my paintings.” Luxe, calme, et volupté: All three are now on view at Knoedler.

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  1. “Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades” opened at Knoedler & Co., New York, on November 6, 2008 and remains on view through January 10, 2009. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 5, on page 50
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