Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bridge to the Possible: Helen Frankenthaler

[“High Spirits” (1988), acrylic on canvas. “Groundswell” (1987), acrylic on canvas. “Untitled (February 24, 1984)” (1984), acrylic & crayon on paper.]

One of America’s most distinguished artists, Helen Frankenthaler has exhibited her work for six decades. Being a transitional figure between Abstract Expressionism’s first and second generations, Frankenthaler’s career took off in 1952 with her work “Mountains and Sea.” Viewers will have the wondrous opportunity to see an array of vital and continually evolving paintings and works on paper by this native and noted New Yorker at Ameringer McEnery Yohe through January 23, 2010.

While attending Dalton School, Frankenthaler studied under Rufino Tamayo (1899—1991). A Zapotecan Cubist painter who synthesized aspects of pre-Columbian culture into his work, Tamayo’s work was noteworthy for its tonal interplay and richness of geometry, metaphor, and explorative transfiguration. Upon returning to New York after completing her studies at Bennington College, Frankenthaler rapidly took her place as an important player among the ranks of its avant-garde art world and the New York School of painters such as Lee Krasner (1908—1984), Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), David Smith (1906–1965), Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Elaine de Kooning (1918–1989), Franz Kline (1910 –1962), Adolf Gottlieb (1903–1974), and Barnett Newman (1905–1970). She was married to Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), a fellow member of this “crowd,” from 1958 to 1971.

With these and other artists, Frankenthaler helped to wrest away the pole of artistic eminence from Paris—allowing New York to seize the spotlight of artistic innovation. Influential art critic Clement Greenberg—who actively promoted the Abstract Expressionist movement—helped “steer” Frankenthaler through the New York art scene in her career’s early years and introduced her to movement catalyst Hans Hofmann (1880—1966). Hans Hofmann reinforced Frankenthaler’s Cubist orientation—begun in high school with Rufino Tamayo—when she studied with the former in 1950.

Marked by its longevity, Frankenthaler’s career has spanned the entirety of post-war American painting—and several generations of abstract painters. First exposed to Jackson Pollock’s work at his Betty Parsons Gallery show in 1950, Frankenthaler was awed by its completeness. “It was all there. I wanted to ‘live’ in this ‘land.’ I had to live there and master the language.” The paintings so grabbing her attention? “Autumn Rhythm,” “Number One,” and “Lavender Mist.”

Abstract Expressionism itself resulted from an interest in Cubism and Surrealism among that generation of artists, combined with their antipathy toward social realism and geometric abstraction. As that movement morphed into Post-Painterly Abstraction in the late 1950s and early 1960s, two distinct trends could be discerned. The Hard Edged Painters—including Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella—explored relationships between shapes and edges. Color Field Painters—the other group—included Frankenthaler and Morris Louis (1912—1962) who stained unprimed canvases. The latter artists, inspired by European Modernism, explored various physical aspects of large fields of pure, brilliant, open color. At the same time, artists such as Kenneth Noland (1924—2010) straddled both trends in their work. In her moving of Modernist painting from the linearity of drips and spatters to the luminousness of Color Field works, Louis would call Frankenthaler “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.”

Importantly, Frankenthaler joined Miriam Schapiro, June Wayne, and Lois Mailou Jones in speaking at the 1971 Conference of Woman in the Visual Arts, which protested exclusion of women from the Corcoran Gallery’s 1971 biennial show. While Frankenthaler once stated that “the question of sex will take care of itself,” MIT art historian Caroline Jones lauded the artist’s 1950s works that simultaneously conformed to the rules of abstraction while containing clear, sensual elements of rebellion against them. Though Frankenthaler’s painterly signs of protest lasted barely a decade in her many decades long career, Jones contends that their presence presaged feminist performance artists such as Yoko Ono and Carolee Schneemann who worked in the Sixties and Seventies.

In a 1995 interview with Rob Storr, Felix Gonzalez-Torres had this to say about Frankenthaler: “All art and all cultural production are political. I’ll just give you an example. When you raise the question of politics or art, people immediately jump and say, ‘Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero—Those are political artists.’ Then who are the nonpolitical artists, as if that was possible at this point in history? Let’s look at abstraction, and let’s consider the most successful of those political artists, Helen Frankenthaler. Why [is she] the most successful political artist, even more than Kosuth, much more than Hans Haacke, much more than Nancy and Leon or Barbara Kruger? Because [she doesn’t] look political!”

In her seminal work “Mountains and Sea,” Frankenthaler introduced the aforementioned technique of painting directly onto an unprimed canvas. By utilizing this technique of “soak stain” (in which the turpentine-diluted oil paint’s color soaks into the canvas), this Frankenthaler work had the effect of a watercolor. At times, the method would give a halo effect to her paintings. Yet, while this work is considered pivotal in art history, Frankenthaler avoided working in series and allowing her work to fall into a rut or formula—unlike some of her contemporaries. With her hand, the canvas moved from mere support in paintings to “playing” an “active” role. In Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1980s exhibited at Ameringer McEnery Yohe, viewers will experience the continuing role of depth illusion in her ever spontaneous and varied work as well as its sculptural quality.

Helen Frankenthaler
@ Ameringer McEnery Yohe
through January 23, 2010
525 West 22nd Street, NYC 10011

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