criticismExhibitions
Thursday, May 1st, 2003

Frankenthaler: New Paintings


Knoedler & Company
19 East 70th Street
New York, NY 10021
tel: 212 794-0550

May 1 – July 18, 2003

The cult of the ugly, consisting of people who equate ugliness with artistic merit, would not approve of this exhibit. Helen Frankenthaler is still guiltlessly making beautiful pictures, even though her work has been dismissed, since the days of Harold Rosenberg, as mere interior decoration. Even supporting critics have expressed doubts as to the strength of her post-1960s work. Frankenthaler rejects the title bestowed upon her in the art history books, “The Founder of the Color-Field School,” and aligns herself with first generation New York School artists, such as Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. She can still be described as an Abstract Expressionist in that she believes in the expressive value of the painterly gesture. Looking at the contemplative works in her new show, it is impossible to avoid comparisons with Rothko. They are almost devoid of allusions and mostly consist of broad areas of color. Frankenthaler is inspired by the transient effects of light. Not unlike classic Rothko, these paintings contract and expand, hum and vibrate. There is a wonderful tension between opacity and translucency.

Warming Trend 2002 acrylic on canvas, 74¾ x 84¼ inches images courtesy Knoedler & Company

Warming Trend 2002 acrylic on canvas, 74¾ x 84¼ inches images courtesy Knoedler & Company

Warming Trend, 2002, is a predominantly purplish field of color, with feathery dark and light blue portions, the whole of which is activated by specks and splashes of shades of orangey red. In the work Ebbing, 2002, a thick dark blue, sponged on line cuts through a purplish blue field of color and almost divides the canvas. This line creates a tension between foreground and background because at times it looks as if the line is in the foreground and at other times it seems as if it has been gouged out of the misty purple field. Frankenthaler is an inventive colorist. She boldly minimizes the drawn elements in these works, and achieves complexity primarily through complimentary colors.

Ebbing 2002 acrylic on canvas, 52 1/8 x 81½ inches

Ebbing 2002 acrylic on canvas, 52 1/8 x 81½ inches

Frankenthaler has stated that she loves the water. Many images made by the finest abstract painters, Miro, Klee, Kandinsky, Matta, Gorky, have an aqueous feel to them. The weightlessness these artists (and Frankenthaler) experienced while they were swimming, the otherworldly quality of being underwater, influenced their imagery and formal innovations. However, Frankenthaler does not want the viewer to forget the artifice involved. In Bacchus, 2002, a luscious and billowy purple-white field has thin pink, orange, blue, and grey lines cutting through it. We are reminded that this is a painted surface and not a representation.

Bacchus 2002 acrylic on paper, 60 x 74 3/8 inches

Bacchus 2002 acrylic on paper, 60 x 74 3/8 inches

Driving East 2002 acrylic on canvas, 52 1/8 x 81½ inches images courtesy Knoedler & Company

Driving East 2002 acrylic on canvas, 52 1/8 x 81½ inches images courtesy Knoedler & Company

Yoruba, 2002 acrylic on paper, 40½ x 60½ inches

Yoruba, 2002 acrylic on paper, 40½ x 60½ inches

Driving East 2002
acrylic on canvas, 52 1/8 x 81½ inches
images courtesy Knoedler & Company

Driving East, 2002 makes you think of a landscape when you first look at it. The bottom portion resembles a hilly terrain in silhouette, and the rest of the canvas resembles an open expanse of overcast sky. This interpretation doesn’t take you very far though. Before long, your eyes become lost in the gently modulated fields of emotive color. This is not a lightweight sensation. A portentous air hangs about the work. You initially feel like a specific place is being described, but soon you are overtaken by a sense of timelessness and isolation; you go from place to no-place. A number of these paintings (Yoruba, 2002, in particular) recall the experience of closing your eyes while the sun shines on your face; when the sun’s rays pierce your closed eyelids and your inner eyes become immersed in throbbing, deep browns, blues, and purples highlighted by flashes of blood red and rust orange.

Painters experience a unique sense of joy when they discover an interesting color through the mixing process. Clearly Frankenthaler is still making art that fits the Greenbergian mold. She emphasizes “the opacity of the medium.” You never forget you are looking at pigment sponged or brushed onto a surface when you are looking at these pictures, even though the artist makes obscure reference to the external world: when earth and sky become blurred at the horizon line, when air currents tear cloud formations asunder (Cloud Burst, 2002). Frankenthaler’s use of complimentary colors owes much to the teachings of her old mentor Hans Hofmann. She creates subtle tensions between blue/purple fields of color and specks of reddish orange and yellow. Soft bursts of brownish red rise above a large area of blue-green paint. Hofmann’s beloved rectangles definitely come to mind, but Frankenthaler’s visual vocabulary has always leaned towards the organic.

By saying that there is a tangible relationship between the works in this show and the paintings of Hofmann and Rothko I do not mean to denigrate it. These paintings are a delicious lurefor the eyes. The variation in tone and spontaneous marks made with brush and sponge prevent these paintings from becoming monotonous, and the subtle use of complimentary colors creates a weird sense of depth. There is a definite push and pull on the eyes but this unique gravitational field is not fully appreciated until you look at the pictures for an extended period. Subtleties abound. Small touches, accidental or controlled, appear here and there, and create a tension between background and foreground. Hofmann did this in his rectangle paintings, but in a much more muscular, loud fashion.

These abstract paintings bring to mind those dense and mysterious brown spaces Rembrandt placed in the backgrounds of his late work. The masterpieces of Analytic Cubism also come to mind with their multi-faceted and shifting grayish brown planes, highlighted by fragmented black and white lines. Frankenthaler forces the viewer to take in the entire picture at once. Analytic Cubist paintings, the very first “all-over compositions,” inspired many of the New York School painters. Frankenthaler’s recent work harkens back to the origins of these formal breakthroughs, while still feeling new. Frankenthaler is bravely exploring her psyche, and her maturity and confidence is revealed through the apparent simplicity of her designs. On a personal note, a few years back I was in a coma. Instead of seeing elaborate images of heaven and hell or a slow motion replay of my childhood, I saw a constant flux of semi-transparent colors and random textures before I finally awoke. In a similar way, these paintings draw me back to life.


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