Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

Despite (or possibly, because of) her close relationships with the critic, Clement Greenberg, the high priest of Abstract Expressionism, and the artist, Robert Motherwell, whom she married, Helen Frankenthaler – in common with other women painters of the previous mid-century, such as Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan and Lee Krasner – never quite managed to find a profile as high as that of her male contemporaries. Think Jackson Pollock, think Rothko, think Willem de Kooning. And yet, it was Frankenthaler who, after observing Pollock at work, came up with the process of allowing paint to stain the canvas in a manner that was less aggressive and, in some ways, more subtle, and which showed the way for much of the Colour Field painting that flourished amongst the ‘second generation’ of American Abstract Expressionists. And yet it was her male followers, lesser lights to my eyes, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, that Greenberg championed.

Now 82, Frankenthaler’s hands are so sadly crippled that she can no longer make new work, so the paintings currently on show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in Cork Street are amongst the last she will have made. As the show’s title, Paper is Painting, suggests, these pieces are all Acrylic on paper and were made between 1986 and 1997. The final, large, painting, untitled, (on the right, above) shows Frankenthaler’s eye for form, space and, above all, colour undiminished: a blaze of orange and red that holds the eye to the centre of the paper, pulling our attention to the rich flourishes of paint upon the surface, even as it suggests depth, the darker reds  in the foreground, with their circular movements, perhaps flowers, the centre receding through orange-yellow space towards what? A field? A wall? The waning sun? And see how the small blip of green – not visible above, take it on trust! – snags the eye. And the whiplash of red below the mass of colour, like a boundary, like barbed wire – the artist’s last quick flick of the brush – I’m me, I’m here.

The strongest pieces – which include the marvellous Canal Street from 1987 (below), redolent of both vaginal blood and  first growth, and the gorgeous fluid blues in the 1994 untitled painting to the left above (recalling the cover she designed for Barbara Guest’s 1968 poetry collection, The Blue Stairs) – repay repeated viewings with a sense of deep satisfaction and pleasure, and confirm Frankenthaler’s place amongst the foremost abstract artists of the last century.

The exhibition continues at Bernard Jacobson until November, 13th.

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2 thoughts on “Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

  1. Funny that you should suggest that Greenberg championed Louis, Noland, Olitski, etc and ignored Frankenthaler. Greenberg often related how he brought Louis to Frankenthaler’s studio to see her work, in paticular “Mountains and Sea” and that it was Frankenthalers work – the innovation of staining into ungessoed canvas and the possiblities that this offered for large-scale colour painting – that pointed the way past Pollock. Certainly Louis, but also Noland and Olitski all benefited by this innovation. Greenberg made no bones about his admiration for Frankenthaler, but may have admired Noland, Louis and Olitski more because in the end they were better.

  2. You’re right, of course, to say that Greenberg made clear that Louis learned the staining technique from Frankenthaler, and gave her credit for being, in that sense, the instigator of Colour Field, but my impression is that, after that, he wrote less about her work and how it developed and more about Louis and the others. I’d like to think this was because, like you, he thought that Louis and the others were ‘better’ and not that he saw male artists as necessarily being the more important or that – heaven forfend – he was pissed off with Frankenthaler for dumping him in favour of Motherwell!

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