We note with sadness the passing of the painter Helen Frankenthaler, who died on December 27 at eighty-three. Frankenthaler, who stepped confidently onto the stage of artistic celebrity in her early twenties, was, for some six decades, an expressive presence in the decorous uplands of American culture, chiefly through her painting but also through her quiet support of high artistic standards. She served with distinction on the National Council on the Arts, the governing body of the National Endowment for the Arts, at a tumultuous moment in the 1980s and helped redirect, if but temporarily, that institution from its infatuation with the repellent antics of the pseudo–avant garde. At the time of her first success in the early 1950s, Frankenthaler was one of a handful of woman artists in the macho and male-dominated purlieus of the New York School. Yet “woman artist” was always a misnomer for Frankenthaler. Although her detractors deprecated an element of “prettiness” in her art (the qualifier “mere” being silently insinuated before the word “prettiness”), she never presented herself in the affirmative-action sweepstakes as a female, let alone as a feminist, artist. She was a painter who happened to be a woman, not a woman artist.
A recurrent theme in the many obituaries that have appeared these past weeks concerns Frankenthaler’s signature “soak-stain” technique of imbuing canvas with paint. The effect of delicate, shimmering translucence that Frankenthaler pioneered provided a deep reservoir of pictorial expression. The influence this had on other abstract artists, notably Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, is part of the accepted narrative. But Frankenthaler’s achievement as an artist does not rest on any technical innovation. As Hilton Kramer, writing in 1969, noted, the real interest of her art lies in the “quality of its expression rather than the technical means by which the expression is realized.” At the center of that quality is a filiation with the emotional core of landscape painting. At bottom, Kramer suggests, Frankenthaler was a “lyric landscapist,” emphasis, pictorially, on the word “lyric.” Her descriptive conventions were not those employed by Ruisdael, Constable, or even Thomas Cole, but she nevertheless remained within the “general orbit of feeling” described by such masters of landscape.
It is too early to speculate with confidence on Helen Frankenthaler’s place in an artistic pantheon that presents shifting constellations rather than a settled edifice. But there is no doubt that she created a gratifying body of work distinguished by consistency of vision and clarity of feeling. She was also, it seems appropriate to acknowledge, a stalwart friend of The New Criterion and its editors. We will miss her. RIP.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 3
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