Defying Categories: Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011
Helen Frankenthaler, who died on Tuesday after a long illness at the age of 83, defied categorization. Although one of few women artists to achieve recognition in the macho art world of New York in the 1950s, she didn’t want to be known as “a great woman artist.” She wanted to be known as a great artist, period (which she was). Although she was also the founder of the “Color Field” school of painting, having provided Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland with inspiration at a crucial stage in their careers, she was not often written about by critics who shared the tastes of Clement Greenberg, and practically never by Greenberg himself. She’d gone around with him in the early ‘50s, but they’d split up in ’55, and the breakup had left him with very mixed emotions about her. The result was that for most of her life she had to make her own way, finding her own admirers and followers. Her reward was that ultimately she became a bigger star than Greenberg (which is the way it should be between artists and critics).
I met her in 1969, at the time of her first major retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, when I was still writing the Art page for Time. I had seen this show, loved it, and wanted to put her on the cover of Time, but my editors overruled me. To my surprise, Frankenthaler wasn’t distressed—said she’d thought it over, and didn’t want to be on the cover of Time. I think she was concerned that her story might be vulgarized if dealt with at cover length. She did, however, like the two-page article that I wrote instead, accompanied by four pages of color photography of her paintings, among them The Human Edge (1967) and Interior Landscape (1964). Those beautiful paintings were what told her story. I could have been writing the alphabet and it wouldn’t have made much difference.
Still, some things she said wear well. Born to wealth and privilege, she’d attended Manhattan private schools, including ultra-traditional Brearley, where she’d discovered that she could paint, and progressive Dalton, where she was able to further her painting studies with Rufino Tamayo, the Mexican modernist. She’d gone on to progressive Bennington College where she studied with Paul Feeley, and then organized an exhibition in Manhattan of Bennington alumnae in May 1950, the year after she graduated. She invited all the critics in town to the opening, including Greenberg (already an art-world celebrity, thanks to his writings on Pollock and other rising first-generation abstract expressionists). Greenberg didn’t like Frankenthaler’s painting, but he did ask her out for a drink, and for the next five years, the pair underwent what she described to me as “a painting bath.”
They went to every exhibition in town, from Pollock to Sir Alfred Munnings, the English horse painter (and an enemy of modernism). They’d get the catalogues to each show, and grade the paintings in them. “One check meant we liked it. Two checks was pretty good. Three was wow!” And always a lot of talk, about what made one painting more successful than another. “This seems the opposite of that lofty beautiful experience that art is supposed to be,” she recalled. “Every painting is supposed to be a valid expression and interesting. But the truth is some work and some don’t. That happens with all painters in every age.” Greenberg had a great “eye;” he could tell a first-rate painting from a second-rate one, but Frankenthaler wanted to make paintings that worked, so she looked and looked, seeking to develop her own eye.
When I met her, she’d been married since 1958 to Robert Motherwell, youngest of the first generation abstract expressionists (Greenberg cattily called them “the Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of the art world”). To me, Motherwell maintained that Frankenthaler had “internalized” Greenberg’s eye. She’d also painted Mountains and Sea (1952), her first major “stain” painting, and the one that so impressed Noland and Louis. It had two sources of inspiration. One was the Nova Scotia landscape that she and Greenberg had visited that summer, to paint late impressionist pictures sur le motif. The other was her visits with Greenberg to Pollock’s studio, seeing how Pollock was making the “black stain” paintings that succeeded his “classic period” of 1947-50. For Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler used Pollock’s principle of staining a canvas laid on the floor, but thinned her oils with turpentine so that they sank into her unprimed canvas, using her shoulder instead of her wrist, and a sponge in addition to a brush. The image was cloudlike, more gentle than Pollock’s, but with a lively zest all its own.
Dozens of artists have since carried on with that technique; few have achieved the range and vitality that characterize Frankenthaler’s staggeringly large total oeuvre, created over six decades. In general, I prefer the paintings of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but there have been many top-quality individual paintings since, and many of Frankenthaler’s most exciting works on paper (particularly her woodcuts) date from these later periods. Because the colors of Mountains and Sea are pastoral colors—pinks and light greens and blues—many critics tried to pigeonhole her as a painter of abstract landscapes. But this is another category she defied. In her old age, she was more willing to speak in interviews of her closeness to landscape painters like Turner, and to paint pictures that could more easily be read as landscapes, but to me, in ’69, she contrasted painting landscapes with painting abstracts, saying that with landscapes, one was stuck within a tradition where pretty much everything had been said, but that with colors and shapes, there was still a lot to be said.
I found her work almost invariably ambiguous, in the best tradition of true abstraction. Shortly before Christmas, I saw her luminous Paris by Night (1986), a deeply rich brown canvas with two floating white and off-white ovals on it, in the Ernestine and Bradley Wayne Collection, at the Greenberg Van Doren Gallery. In the catalogue essay, Dorsey Waxter suggested a resemblance to street lamps in the Place de la Concorde. Before reading that, I’d been reminded of the cheery windows of a Paris café, shining through the evening darkness. Obviously, both of us had been influenced by the title, but the fact that we were reminded of two very different images tells me that the painting still inhabits that refreshingly free (though still invisibly circumscribed) magic world of abstraction, Frankenthaler’s truest home.