Alexandra Schwartz is a New York–based independent curator and the author of Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles (MIT Press, 2010). Her latest exhibition, “As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings,” is on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through October 9, 2017. A related exhibition, “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts,” curated by Jay A. Clark, is also on view at the institution through September 24, 2017.
SINCE I STARTED WORKING on this exhibition, almost every time I mention it to a female painter, she responds with delight. Speaking enthusiastically about her admiration for Frankenthaler’s work—the “one-shot” paintings, the remarkable sense of color, the subtle use of layering, the simultaneous lyricism and aggression—she also expresses admiration for the artist’s still-outsize reputation for determination, fortitude, and toughness. She might cite a personal anecdote about meeting Frankenthaler, or having a mutual acquaintance and angling to meet her. Her voice is inflected with a hint of awe.
It is fascinating that Frankenthaler has become a sort of feminist icon, or at least a revered role model, for her own views on her status as a woman artist appear to have been fraught. When asked in a 1965 interview, “How do you feel about being a woman painter?” she replied, “I wonder if my pictures are more ‘lyrical’ (that loaded word!) because I’m a woman. Looking at my paintings as if they were painted by a woman is superficial, a side issue, like looking at Klines and saying they are bohemian. The making of serious paintings is difficult and complicated for all serious painters. One must be oneself, whatever.”
As an art historian, I must maintain that it doesn’t matter whether Frankenthaler wanted gender to come into considerations of her art; once an artist’s work is out in the world, she ceases to control it. And the fact is that Frankenthaler’s gender has always mattered. The sexism inherent in many early responses to her work was virulent: A critic wrote in 1960, “The goddess Ate, patroness of reckless blindness and mad impulse, may be responsible for the work of Helen Frankenthaler,” going on to describe the artist and her work (and treating them as one and the same) as “irrational,” “hysterical,” “romantic, hypersensitive, sulky,” and “an example of thin, nervous romanticism.” Discouragingly, this venom came from a female critic, Anne Seeley. The review also points to another tendency in Frankenthaler’s early reception—particularly in magazines such as Time and Life, which covered the female Abstract Expressionists (or, according to one article, “The Vocal Girls”)—that emphasized her good looks, privileged background, and alliances with powerful men, among them the critic Clement Greenberg and the artist Robert Motherwell, over considerations of her work. While Frankenthaler may have been complicit in cultivating these associations, they arguably both helped and hindered her career.
Feminist art history has sought to correct such distortions. One of the most important, if controversial, feminist considerations of Frankenthaler’s work was a 1998 essay (revised in 2005) by the art historian Lisa Saltzman. Charting how critics have historically insisted on the “feminine” nature of Frankenthaler’s work, she draws a connection between the artist’s painted “stains” and menstrual blood. Though she cites remarks to this effect made decades earlier by one of Frankenthaler’s great champions, the critic E. C. Goossen, her essay was derided by many of the artist’s defenders. Prominent art historians including Griselda Pollock, Anne Wagner, Katy Siegel, and Anna Chave have also offered essential considerations of gender and Frankenthaler’s work, illuminating how it was both the product and reflection of a historically tumultuous era for women.
Though Frankenthaler always distanced herself from the women’s movement and embraced a somewhat conservative lifestyle, she led what might be described as a feminist life. By this I mean: she “made it” as a woman artist when almost no one else did, forged a highly chronicled six-decade career, maneuvered the art world with great skill, and remained true to her particular artistic vision. The latter often meant undermining received expectations of her work, particularly in relation to Greenbergian formalism, which celebrated her early soak-stain paintings as the epitome of modernism. Yet much of her painting is not stained, but full of impasto and hints of figuration, with references to landscape, still life, and portraiture—all of which Greenberg disdained. As those who knew Frankenthaler (I didn’t) have told me repeatedly, she was a force; she knew what she wanted and how to get it, flying in the face of the myriad constraints on women at the time.
What better defines a feminist? And yet, can this be said of someone who eschewed feminism? For me, Frankenthaler has always been a bit of a puzzle, but one that must be reckoned with if you are interested in the history of art and gender. If nothing else, the complicated issues of femininity in her work and career spoke to the shifting norms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And I will say, I was one of those young women who regarded Frankenthaler with admiration and awe; as a student, I sought out her work, and it is one of the reasons I am an art historian today.