PRINT April 1969

Painting Within Tradition: The Career of Helen Frankenthaler

THERE ARE FEW INSTANCES IN WHICH the critic has to evaluate work that has had some special personal significance for him; but those instances are often the most challenging. When I abandoned the provinces, I came to New York to study the Old Masters. But Morningside Heights soon proved less compelling than 57th Street. This was something I couldn’t justify for a long time. One day, however, I saw abstract paintings that succeeded in preserving many of the qualities I admired in the Old Masters—especially the lightness and airiness of the great “painterly” painters like the Venetians—without turning back to their techniques or images. Although I did not drop the Old Masters on the spot, I realized I was more drawn to these contemporary paintings than to past art because they recreated a long tradition of painting within the terms of my own experience.

Now I have had the opportunity to look again at these paintings, which were the works of Helen Frankenthaler, this time in the light of historical perspective. Brought together in an extensive retrospective organized by E. C. Goossen, the 46 paintings at the Whitney Museum cover the full 17 years of Miss Frankenthaler’s remarkable career. The occasion of such a retrospective reveals many things about the internal development of Frankenthaler’s art, its relationship to European modernism as well as to the American landscape tradition of O’Keeffe, Dove and Marin, and its dialectical engagement with the problems confronting American painting in the fifties and sixties. Above all, however, the exhibition verifies beyond the shadow of a doubt my initial conviction that Miss Frankenthaler is one of the major figures in world art of the last two decades. And what is more, it proves conclusively that her greatness does not rest, as it has sometimes been presumed, on her historical position as the inventor of stained painting, but is secured rather by the quality of her oeuvre as a whole, among which are some of the freshest and most durable paintings in recent art history.

Tracing Miss Frankenthaler’s career, one finds that she began as an eclectic modernist, influenced by Gorky, Kandinsky and Miró & and perhaps peripherally by Klee. Her coming of age as a painter occurred abruptly, when, as a twenty-two year old Bennington graduate, she encountered the work of Jackson Pollock. By the time she was twenty-four, she had visited Pollock several times at his home in Springs, Long Island; but most importantly, she had understood that the most radical aspect of Pollock’s art was not his highly personal image, but his technique, which could be extended in a direction other than Pollock’s own. That Frankenthaler was able to separate technique from image, and use Pollock’s method of working on the floor directly into raw, unprimed canvas, put her a giant step ahead of her contemporaries, who had been sidetracked into imitating de Kooning’s image. For even in her earliest work Frankenthaler’s image is her own—a relaxed, hazy, transparent wash as diametrically opposed to Pollock’s nervous, electrically charged web as one could imagine. Moreover, when she began staining diluted oil paint into raw duck late in 1952, adapting Pollock’s mechanical technique for applying paint without the use of the brush, her image developed as an atmospheric marine vision of adjacent transparent planes avoiding overlapping, in opposition to Pollock’s muscular, densely interwoven and superimposed skeins and nets. In fact, originality of image remains one of Frankenthaler’s great strengths throughout her career. Even when one first encounters her as a young painter, there is no doubt that the bursting, flowing, expanding, unfolding and flowering image she creates is hers and hers alone. One might indeed hold that in Frankenthaler’s case quality depends in large measure on the uniqueness of a sensibility and the artist’s success in communicating that uniqueness in its full intensity.

Frankenthaler’s adoption of Pollock’s method of working and technique of paint application was crucial not only to the further development of her own art, but also to color abstraction in general, as a number of writers have pointed out.1 As early as 1937, however, John Graham, in his prophetic book on esthetics (System and Dialectics of Art), had pointed out that a change in technique necessarily predicated a change in form. Soaking and staining painting directly into the canvas fabric combined with working on the floor from all sides (rather than in one direction against the wall or easel) had many immediate formal repercussions. The effacement of the movements of the hand in favor of an automatic, mechanical and impersonal technique (eventually carried to its logical limits by Louis, Noland and Olitski) removed a degree of contrivance that had hampered painting from achieving a desired immediacy and unity of impact.

Working straight down on the floor permitted a new way of composing in which the framing edge was arrived at last rather than first. As a method, it gave greater freedom to diverge from preconceived images, while at the same time insuring the all-overness of the image because the painting was obviously worked equally from all four sides. Neither geometric nor conceptual, Frankenthaler’s images are spontaneously generated by the process of their creation. Automatism is understood as a principle of form creation, but it is controlled in such a way as to create legible, coherent patterns or structures related through analogy rather than by strict repetition, as is the case in any geometric scheme. The degree to which Frankenthaler’s patterns approximate or deviate from each other, and from familiar patterns or configurations, introduces a kind of allusive ambiguity she obviously cultivates. Often there is a good deal of wit in these associations. It is clear from the title of one of her most exciting works, Seven Types of Ambiguity, which pays homage to Empson’s study of the varieties of poetic metaphor, that Frankenthaler is interested in maximizing all types of ambiguity—spatial, structural, illusive and allusive—to create as rich and as complex a statement as possible. That she is able to articulate various modes of ambiguity in a syntax of absolute clarity and precision is among her greatest achievements.

Composing by cropping the image, Frankenthaler gained both the freedom to reconsider a composition and to revise in the process of creation without resorting to the compositional juggling at the heart of Cubist painting. But the most important advantage gained by using the new technique, however, was the resolution—or at least the staving off—of the double edged crisis which ultimately compromised the works of so many lesser artists unable to achieve a similar resolution. The nature of this crisis was so deep and pervasive, in fact, that Pollock himself was unable to create an entirely satisfactory new synthesis once he abandoned the drip technique that had initially made their resolution possible. The dual crisis I refer to involved (1) the rejection of the tactile, sculptural space of painting from the Renaissance until Cubism in favor of the creation of a purely optical space that did not so much as hint at the illusion of a third dimension and (2) the avoidance, if not ideally the banishment, of figure-ground or positive shape against negative background silhouetted arrangements. The drip technique allowed Pollock to reconcile flatness with a purely optical illusionism by freeing line from its traditional role as shape creating contour. In later works, Pollock further questioned the nature of figure-ground relationships by actually cutting holes out of his webs; while in the glass paintings, he attempted to render the background neutral by literally suspending the image against a transparent ground.

This is something that the stain technique, as Frankenthaler developed it, was able to do. Essentially the great advantage of staining lay in its ability to render the background neutral by sinking the image directly into it. Frankenthaler’s early appreciation of what was inherently revolutionary in Pollock’s art gave her an enormous edge in overcoming the dual obstacles—sculptural illusionism and figure-ground opposition—impeding the development of a post-Cubist style based not on delimited shallowness and figure-ground exchanges, but on opticality and openness. Obviously the seeds of such a style existed in Impressionism and the various post-Impressionist movements indebted to Impressionism, especially in Matisse’s art, to which Frankenthaler has drawn closer in her later works. The invention of staining permitted Frankenthaler to overcome the obstacles just mentioned because it identified figure with ground, thus eliminating any duality between them; at the same time it allowed her to identify drawing with form creation by marrying the two in a manner that caused the painterly to encroach upon and ultimately to subsume the graphic entirely. This was a difficult and complex process, and it did not happen all at once.

Despite its popular appraisal as a key “historical” work, Mountains and Sea is a great painting because of its breadth of scale, freshness of color and originality of image, not because of its innovational character, which in fact was only partial. Mountains and Sea is significant because of its quality, which does not depend on innovation, since in many respects it remains a conventional work exhibiting a discontinuity amounting to an opposition between the linear and the painterly, reminiscent of Gorky’s separation of these two plastic elements.

Actually, not Pollock’s classic drip paintings, but the black and white figurative works of 1951–52 were Frankenthaler’s point of departure in developing the stain technique as well as elaborating an allusive landscape image. In most practical respects, Pollock’s Duco heads and figures were the first stain paintings; at any rate, they were the first pictures to take advantage of the viewer’s awareness of the actual physical character of the support in identifying the image as part of the ground.2 The importance of Mountains and Sea is that it added light and color to Pollock’s discovery. So, in a sense, it doesn’t mean much to credit Frankenthaler with the invention of a revolutionary new technique already largely posited in Pollock’s paintings; her real historical importance resides in her primary responsibility for deflecting the current of art history in the early fifties, when many of the best painters were painting in black and white, back in the direction of color painting without, however, resorting to the highly formal, hieratic images and reductive formats of Rothko and Newman. By marrying the technical freedom of automatism with the impulse toward color expression, she was able to eliminate much of the airlessness and artificiality of color painting derived from post-Impressionist sources; in other words she was able to redeem the Venetian tradition of an airy, loose painterliness without compromising the principles of modernism. This achievement was by no means minimal; it was the ambition of de Kooning and Kline in their later works, but it was not theirs, but Frankenthaler’s, to attain.

The technique used in Mountains and Sea, as it has been pointed out repeatedly by this time, permitted the creation of an atmospheric illusionism that did not deny flatness because the space created was explicitly and unmistakably optical. This type of illusion, based not on modeling or figure-ground relationships, but on color contrasts, was already being practiced by Newman and Rothko by the time Frankenthaler began painting; but her insistence on the material quality of the canvas as fabric into which image was imbedded somewhat changed the character of the illusion by precluding absolutely any reading of space behind the frame. Frame, surface (ground) and image were conspicuously and explicitly contiguous. If one compares Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings with other works of the early fifties, one is immediately struck by how their physical appearance differs from that of other paintings made at that time. Because pigment is thinned down to watercolor consistency, the whiteness of the canvas ground is fully utilized for its light-reflecting potential in the same manner that the page reflects light beneath the transparency of watercolor wash. This was especially important for Louis; in many respects his greatest paintings, the veils, are unthinkable without Frankenthaler, to whom he was the first to admit a debt. A comparison between Frankenthaler and Louis is instructive as to the opposition in their intention; for example, where Louis superimposes successive transparent planes creating misty, foggy, rainbow or otherwise weather-related atmospheric effects, Frankenthaler modulates a form from within, contrasting not hue but saturation and intensity, creating a rising, falling and swelling motion related to a marine or landscape image. Another characteristic tendency is to submerge an image in another, as for example the green form at the top of Canal is modulated through yellow until it plunges into a larger greenish orange, in an aqueous flow of liquid color. The emphasis on liquidity of pigment is constant in Frankenthaler’s work; it focuses on the actual nature of the medium, as the rawness of canvas identifies the true character of the support as fabric.

Before Frankenthaler, Marin had attempted to translate a watercolor technique into oil, but he was hampered from fully achieving his goal because he was still priming the canvas, with the result that he was painting on a hard rather than an absorbent ground in his oils. This was not true in the watercolors themselves, of course, since the paper ground absorbs pigment directly, which is probably why his watercolors usually remain superior to his oils. In staining, however, Frankenthaler allowed the ground to soak up color just as the page absorbed watercolor, enabling her to achieve in oil both a freshness and a luminosity previously available only in watercolor, an intimist medium obviously inimical to a monumental statement. It is, however, interesting to note in this connection that some of the highest moment in American art had occurred in the landscape watercolors of Homer, O’Keeffe and Marin, while many of Demuth’s finest works are also watercolors. These links to a strong native tradition are worth remarking in relation to Frankenthaler’s approach, which in many ways is centrally located within the American tradition. For despite the degree to which it is linked to French precedents, Frankenthaler’s attitude toward landscape is not French but American, much more so than, for example, the first generation Abstract Expressionists who prided themselves on the radicality of their break with the French tradition. This may be the case because by the fifties the American tradition no longer represented the threat of provincialism, which had been so clearly banished by the Abstract Expressionists that a younger painter like Frankenthaler could view it with a fresh eye.

To work as she chose to work, allowing the initial mark to stand as final, Frankenthaler had to have a fantastic natural talent as well as an unshakable conviction in the intrinsic worth of her “mark.” Given her terms, which exposed the rhetoric of risk-taking to a real test, there were no second chances possible. If the painting failed in part or at a point along the way, it had to be totally rejected. But if it was realized, the image had the unity of something created all at once; it appeared decisively of a piece, since obviously that was how it was created, speed of execution being of primary importance to Frankenthaler’s style. In a film made for NET, Kenneth Noland speaks of the search for the means to make “one-shot” paintings. Frankenthaler’s early achievement was based principally on her ability to bring off such “one-shot” images, which convinced the viewer of their immediacy and indivisibility, a wholeness and indissolubility of image really only attained, up to that point, by Pollock. That it was possible to achieve this in a color art was apparently the important message her paintings held for Louis and Noland.

While the fashion was to load the brush and to pile the surface with pigment, Frankenthaler was allowing her diluted, transparent, often pastel washes to sink into the canvas, creating a soft, vulnerable, unified surface that looks stripped down and naked in comparison with brushy, encrusted action paintings. But in retrospect, her paintings also look a lot fresher, freer and less mannered than “action” painting. In the late fifties, however, her work appeared “thin” to a lot of viewers precisely because of these qualities. It took a shift in taste brought about by the recognition of Louis and Noland to allow the quality of Frankenthaler’s work to become generally apparent. Her strange, original palette with its greyed and muted mauves, pinks, and blues and its rusted ochres and browns offended taste familiar with conventional color. But there is no question that Frankenthaler’s best paintings are created in opposition to accepted taste. The two times she falters, moreover, are precisely the moments when she attempts to accommodate herself to the prevailing taste. Fortunately, these moments are short-lived. I am speaking specifically of that moment in the late fifties, represented in the exhibition by the 1958 painting, Before the Caves, in which she attempts to reconcile herself to action painting, and the later works, such as Five Color Space of 1966, in which she tries to bring herself into line with the minimal sensibility.

These two works seemed to me the weakest in the show: Before the Caves because it appeared spatially confused rather than complex, and Five Color Space because the open center composition employed creates a negative shape or hole in the center that sets up figure ground, positive-negative relationships between interior and framing elements that Frankenthaler herself had disposed of in earlier paintings, and which are certainly no longer tolerable in advanced painting. Outside these two exceptions, however, the rest of the paintings, sensitively selected by Mr. Goossen, shine with the freshness and clarity of a uniquely coherent personal vision. The first two rooms of the exhibition, filled with works from the fifties which haven’t been seen for over a decade, are a revelation. Following the youthful painter’s development, one sees a brilliant talent maturing into a reflective mastery of means, image and format. Even the earliest painting exhibited, the 1951 Ed Winston’s Tropical Gardens, a long, yellow horizontal reminiscent of Pollock’s friezes, with its rollicking cursive swirls brushed rapidly across the surface, is obviously the work of an enormously gifted talent. As one follows Frankenthaler’s development, one sees the mellowing and deepening of that talent into a serious esthetic force. Given her extraordinary virtuosity, her ability—not cultivated but inborn—to pull together a composition, and to dash off passages with verve and brio, Frankenthaler could easily have become a facile painter of surfaces. That she chose the hard way instead, searching and reaching toward the monumental and majestic style she achieves in the three latest works in the show, Blue North, Summer Banner and Tone Shapes, proves the victory of character over virtuosity, a battle any natural painter has to win over his own talent if he is ever to achieve profundity as a mature artist.

The current retrospective includes examples of all of the major phases of Frankenthaler’s career; obviously, some phases were more felicitous than others. Three groups of paintings stand out with special distinction: the works done in 1957–59, 1961–64, and current works, beginning with the superb 1967 Flood, owned by the Whitney, seem to me particularly inspired. Partially this has to do with Frankenthaler’s own internal development, and partially it depends on the general course of art history, which required her to resolve certain challenges, particularly with regard to structure. As one traces the course of her work, one sees a steady maturation and development based on an unwillingness to rest with any solution, no matter how successful, coupled with an iron-willed determination to attack the central issues of the moment. But although Frankenthaler’s art is constantly changing, the lines of those self-imposed changes are organic rather than programmatic. Her evolution offers no abrupt conceptual transitions from one phase to the next; there are no a priori adoptions of a format exclusively on the basis that it solves or sets up any given formal problem, although there is, even in the earliest works, a sophisticated awareness of the nature of the formal problems presented by painting since Pollock revised Cubist attitudes toward space and shape.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Frankenthaler’s development is the manner in which she is able to feed off her own work without retracing her steps. When she gets lost—and this invariably happens with regard to format or structure, and never with regard to scale or color, for which she seems to have an infallible eye—she seems able to renew herself by picking up threads of her own work. Particularly crucial in this respect is the 1953 rose and blue horizontal painting, Open Wall, which is prophetic in many respects of recent directions in Frankenthaler’s work. Open Wall resolves for the first time any remaining conflict between the graphic and the painterly which she had inherited from Gorky and Kandinsky. Line is allowed to spread and bleed into blot-like forms, which because of their ragged irregularity and obvious contiguity with the surface do not stand as closed shapes with relation to the ground. The monumental simplicity of the large forms and their lento pulse is played off to great advantage against the sprightly staccato of the bursting and streaming motifs they frame and enclose. But most significantly, as the title indicates, Frankenthaler has arrived at a way of simultaneously holding the surface and opening it up.

Frankenthaler’s most recent paintings fall into two categories, one of which is directly related to Matisse, in terms of a decorative deployment of a few clear-cut shapes, such as The Human Edge and Tone Shapes; the other, represented by Flood, Adriatic and Cape (this last a fine recent work unfortunately not in the show), relates back to earlier works in which tonal modulation and variation in saturation and intensity play a large role. I think that the latter group, which renews the motif of the “submerged” or immersed form is by far the more powerful. Generally, in fact, it seems to me that the influence of Matisse’s late works on American paintings will eventually be seen as a mixed blessing, with perhaps more drawbacks than advantages. For one thing, it encouraged the isolation of discrete shapes against a background, a convention, as I pointed out earlier, already rejected by advanced painting. To a certain degree, Frankenthaler’s technique saves her from entirely falling into this trap; on the other hand there is a brittleness and dryness about The Human Edge that works against spontaneity, liveness and movement, which are the qualities Frankenthaler offers us at a time when they are so rare. Tone Shapes does not participate in the planar flatness that causes Matisse’s late works to be so purely and exclusively decorative. This is so because in Tone Shapes, the shapes are oriented directionally in such a manner as to suggest a very elusive and complex spatial relationship, evoking the conventional landscape divisions of foreground, middle ground and background, even as it denies them by eliminating horizon lines. The highly original, low-key color, contrasting dark grey, purplish grey and black, together with the mottling of areas to prevent a depiction of flatness, establishes the superiority of Tone Shapes over the majority of paintings of 1966–67. Similarly, in Cloud Slant of 1968, Frankenthaler shows herself the master of the minimal format that had formerly caused her difficulty. By tilting the internal frame off to the right, she no longer makes the mistake of tying it to the actual margin, but allows it to float buoyantly off the edge in a manner that neither denies her own inherent gifts nor chokes off space. White is used here as a color as black is used in other recent paintings—another Matissean device Frankenthaler shares with Noland and Stella.

The tendency has been to characterize Frankenthaler as a “lyric” painter. This is a bit misleading, since landscape painting, in which she obviously participates, is not necessarily identical with lyricism, nor for that matter is color painting. The late works especially seem to move away from any melodic, rhapsodic quality toward a gravity and solemnity, an almost ascetic restraint and directness. Sometimes this means Frankenthaler will strain against her own innate gracefulness to produce an awkward form that may be less familiar; or she will seek out the grating color chord; in any event she consistently rejects the sweet, the charming, and the pretty, which for a woman painter, isn’t all that easy.

Frankenthaler’s work has consistently evolved in two directions: away from the playful and engaging forms of the fifties—even deliberately away from technical brilliance for its own sake—toward clear simple forms whose irregular boundaries avoid the familiar or the geometric. At the same time the color has changed from the muted pastels of Mountains and Sea to the rusty palette of the late fifties to the intense full range of the mid sixties, in which colors do not merge but are separated by areas of raw canvas, accentuating their brilliance, to the dark tones of the late sixties. It is as if color, having been light and air for Frankenthaler, is now transformed into gravity. Indeed one of the most striking qualities about the new work is the manner in which color is translated into weight: the balance in Tone Shapes, for example, is not achieved through harmony but through one’s sense that the small black area, the large grey mass and the purplish boulder-like shape at the top are calibrated in terms of density and value to balance out appropriately. That many of the colors are more opaque in the recent work tends also to emphasize weight, mass, density and gravity. And it is here, in her preoccupation with literal and metaphoric gravity that Frankenthaler leaves off with the lyric. She is a painter now who builds as much as she sings. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with building, when it is expressed solely as a concern with structure rather than with relative weight and density, can create a rigid format in conflict with her basic impulse towards openness.

Frankenthaler first became concerned with the relationship of the image to the frame in 1964, obviously under the pressure of developments in Noland’s and Stella’s works, to whom it was the central concern at the time. She manages to combine openness and structure in a series that includes at least two beautifully realized works, Interior Landscape and the exotic, brilliant Small’s Paradise. In these paintings the motif is still centered and. floats, although it is framed by ragged edged rectangular bands. The relationship between image and frame becomes more problematic in 1966, however, when she attempts to anchor the members of the interior frame to the edge; but the dilemma is resolved in most recent works, in which she is once again able to signal awareness of the proportions and location of the frame without being enslaved by them.

For a number of reasons, Flood is an important work because it reaffirms Frankenthaler’s mastery of scale, while it affords the opportunity for the reintroduction of a complex illusionism that seems at the moment to offer limitless potential. And it does this in the context of a fresh palette Frankenthaler developed in the sixties: a high-key, brilliant range of hot oranges and ochres and pinks contrasted with an equally intense range of greens and purples that are only nominally cool. The generosity as well as the potency of its image insure its place as one of the finest paintings produced anywhere in the late sixties. A brilliant tour de force of optical effects, a sumptuous orchestration of color so rich it threatens to breach the edge of gorgeousness, Flood is everything the art of the sixties has not been: it is free, spontaneous, extravagant, romantic, voluptuous, and full of air, light and pure, uninhibited joie de vivre. We are back again with Veronese’s feasts and Tiepolo’s skies. But there is another note, too, a note of solemnity and grandeur that announces the mature style of a great painter who has come a long way and is opening another chapter with a style still full of refreshing vitality, but a vitality informed by experience.

I have not spoken much of changes in format and the implicit landscape allusion behind Frankenthaler’s work because these two issues are discussed at length in Mr. Goossen’s admirable exhibition catalog, by far the best piece of writing on the artist. Clear, concise, and remarkably free of the sycophantic irrelevancies such documents usually provoke, the catalog is absolutely straight, and to the point. The exhibition itself, with its astonishing variety, daring, and sheer force of feeling should provide food for thought for some time to come and suggest directions painting might take to recover from the deadening aridity of the more extreme forms of sixties’ reductiveness.

As for the artist herself, having navigated a precarious course between the Scylla of “action” painting and the Charybdis of Minimalism, with surprisingly little critical approbation to sustain her, Miss Frankenthaler emerges at the end of the sixties admirably able to deal with the present on her own terms. Equipped with immense resources, she must, and obviously can, measure herself against her own equally immense accomplishments.

Barbara Rose


1. See Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” Art International; “After Abstract Expressionism,” Art International; and Michael Fried, Three American Painters, 1965.

2. Because the Duco enamel was not entirely absorbed by the wound and remained visibly on top rather than within it, the union was not as complete as it was when Frankenthaler used diluted oil.