Art Chronicles: Helen Frankenthaler

Along with Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, who has died at the age of 83, was one of a relatively small number of women artists who came to prominence in the male dominated New York art world of the 1950s. Loosely catagorised as second generation Abstract Expressionists, each had to find a style – and a space – within which their work could develop and grow. Hartigan, [below left, with Frankenthaler] without eschewing abstraction altogether, began to bring representational forms and figures into her work, to the point that she was later heralded [much against her wishes] as one of the progenitors of Pop Art. Mitchell – who along with Hartigan and Jane Freilicher, had been linked with the group of artists and writers closely associated with the poet Frank O’Hara – left New York for France, where the influence of Monet and the Impressionists on her work became increasingly visible.

Not unlike Mitchell, Frankenthaler was interested in combining landscape – as she saw it in the paintings of Cézanne and in the sketches and water colours she herself made when travelling – with abstraction. “I wanted,” she said, “to draw in with colour and shape the totally abstract memory of landscape.”

Her breakthrough came when, partly as a result of watching Jackson Pollock at work, she set her canvases, still unprimed, on or close to the floor, pouring thinned paint directly on to the canvas and allowing it to spread, while, to some degree, guiding its shape and flow. A mixture of accident and control, resulting in, as the poet and art critic James Schuyler described it, “chanced beauty.”

The first major painting to come from this method of staining, as it came to be called, was “Mountains and Sea”,[above]  which gave birth to the branch of Abstract Expressionism known as Colour Field Painting or Post-Painterly Abstraction.

Frankenthaler continued to paint and show her work until recently, Paper is Painting being the last of three exhibitions held at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London between 2000 and 2010.

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