Helen Frankenthaler, who died today at 83 after a long illness, provided a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, with her lyric and gestural brushwork, bold color shapes and fluid, shimmering washes.
An avid printmaker as well as a painter, Frankenthaler was an individualist, an experimentalist and a romantic. Often associated with Abstract Expressionism, in part because of her husband, Robert Motherwell, and with Color Field artists, she occupied a region unto herself.
“It would be hard to find an artist of her generation as open to risk and change and range” said Ann Freedman, former president of the gallery Knoedler & Co. and the artist’s longtime friend and dealer.
“Helen was open to everything around her,” Freedman said. “People, nature, art. She never worked in series. Everything was a one-off.”
Born in New York City in 1928 to Martha (Lowenstein) and Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme court judge, Helen Frankenthaler studied at the Dalton School with the Mexican figurative, symbolist painter Rufino Tamayo. She also studied briefly with Hans Hofmann, who probably helped to instill in her a love of abstraction and of European art.
Perhaps from Tamayo, she acquired a mystical edge that informed her entire career and provided open and atmospheric color -- decorative counterpoint -- to the bravado and post-Cubist structure in the work of New York School artists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.
‘Mountains and Sea’
Frankenthaler is credited with refining the technique of “staining,” beginning with the seminal, landscape-inspired abstraction “Mountains and Sea” (1952). Taking her cues from Pollock, she poured layers of turpentine-thinned oil paint on unprimed canvas, which, like Pollock, she had laid directly on the studio floor.
“Mountains and Sea,” merging rock, ocean and horizon into a surreal, transparent mass, recalls the work of artists as diverse as Arthur Dove, Arshile Gorky and Paul Klee. Like Klee, who sometimes treated oil painting like watercolor, Frankenthaler explored a dying process that fused color, canvas and space, and which had enormous influence on Color Field painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.
Frankenthaler’s primary gift was a feeling for free, open, saturated color -- for creating, and immersing us in, painted worlds in which liquid, solid form and air are hazy, pressurized, interchangeable -- in continual states of becoming.
Lack of Meat
The openness in Frankenthaler’s work at times can be too thin and merely decorative. The lack of meat and structure can give the impression of something wishy-washy. Her suggestions of natural elements aren’t rigorous or specific enough. She sometimes sets us adrift in saccharine fields.
In her best pictures, however, such as “Yin Yang” (1990) and “Tattoo” (1983), Frankenthaler is a true painter -- perhaps more French than American. Like Mark Rothko, she evokes not the look but the actions of nature. Her colors burn and rub against one another, suggesting moments in Pierre Bonnard and Titian.
It will be interesting, in light of the recent closing of Knoedler, to see who will represent her estate. Knoedler and Freedman, its former director, were sued in early December over the authenticity of a painting the gallery said was by Pollock.
Freedman, who declined to comment on the suit for this article, said of Frankenthaler: “I just want to honor and protect her work, her wishes and her legacy.”
That is exactly what an artist of Frankenthaler’s stature deserves.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)