PRINT January 1972

New Work of Helen Frankenthaler

HELEN FRANKENTHALER’S RECENT SHOW at Emmerich did relatively little either to enhance or to blemish her reputation as one of the most consistently “interesting” painters currently active in this country. To say that her work has been and continues to be “interesting” is not to imply faint praise, but rather to suggest that her achievements have, as often as not, been critical rather than truly pictorial in nature, and that this very much remains the case.

For over a decade Helen Frankenthaler has presented herself as a maker of predominantly color-oriented paintings. Yet, either for fear of self-indulgence or from some more basic artistic insecurity, Frankenthaler’s color has never been permitted to carry unimpeded the real expressive content of her art, and instead, a process of what can perhaps best be described as continuous formal self-analysis has seemed always to prevent her color from developing a natural—or better—an organic character distinctly its own. Recalling Frankenthaler’s work of the past decade, one remembers generically the types of color relationships she has elicited in images of widely differing sorts, but one does not recall any essential transformation of color per se such as one knows in Noland’s or Olitski’s best work. To put it more succinctly, color has tended to be a mode of work for Frankenthaler without ever having become the real core of her artistic existence.

If color itself has not shown the way in Frankenthaler’s work, what has? I would answer that a combination of modernist historicism and a passion for generating, complicating, and then finally articulating a resolution to formal issues derived from this historicism, has provided the rather eccentric life pulse of her work, giving it its undeniable “interest,” while, more often than not, bleeding it of major quality.

Prior to 1966 the quasi-imagistic figurations that frequently lay within her works inclined many critics to credit sensuous directness and significance almost by default of demonstration. Confronted by lush, abstract landscapes and delicately capricious biomorphic forms of more specific sorts, it seemed that the formal conciseness of Louis’ work was about to spawn a confident and untroubled child but, in fact, Frankenthaler’s figurations concealed a much less secure and decisive formalism, a formalism that never managed to focus definitively on a single issue, or for that matter, even upon a single sequence of issues. Instead, three or four fundamentally different approaches to the development of a painted image were being perpetuated simultaneously. When the more overt figurations began to disappear after 1966, facilitating a less encumbered look of the paintings themselves, the alternative approaches were there for all to see—diagrammed and resolved in a variety of ways by broad, closely cropped areas of comparatively pure stained color.

It is possible to explain most, if not all, of American color painting in the 1960s as a response to and development from Barnett Newman’s radical suppression of self-contained composition in favor of generally unimpeded fields of pure color. It is not possible to explain Helen Frankenthaler’s work in this way. Instead the very traditions of abstract painting, which New-man’s work rejected so effectively, have continued to attract and at times to support Frankenthaler. Specifically, Stieglitz’ abstraction (Dove’s, O’Keeffe’s, Hartley’s, and Marin’s), the graphic automatism of Gorky and Pollock, and the broad, heavily accented, frame-echoing Cubism of Motherwell, Kline, de Kooning (and to a lesser degree Hofmann) seem to pose an almost endless American problem, which Frankenthaler confronts anew every year of her creative life. No truly major painter since Manet has tried to understand and to embrace so much history—and so much disjointed history at that. Granting this we have come to expect (and finally to honor) the two-part pictorial comment to one of pictorial achievement that marks every exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings. This year’s exhibition, while in many superficial ways different from others of the past five years, was no exception to what seems by now the general rule.

For those who saw the recent Emmerich show it may seem slightly unjust to suggest that continuity with past work was more crucial than the portentous “newness” generated by Frankenthaler’s ambling appliqué of line drawing. This line drawing, which serves at times to connect and at other times to invade the still discrete areas of pure color, seems to me (with very few exceptions) at best an acceptable and occasionally expressive redundancy (echoing drawing at the inside edges of color areas) and at worse an affectation, which compromises qualities presented more convincingly in past works. While commending Frankenthaler for keeping off the current textural bandwagon in American color painting, I must say that at least three people, Al Stadler, Larry Poons, and Darby Bannard, have managed far more expressive revisions of their color via textural reinforcement than Frankenthaler has via her new mode of drawing. However, it is, by my own admission, wrong to deal with Frankenthaler strictly in terms of color—since she is more an abstract painter dealing with color than a color painter of the purest sort—so it is vital at this point to describe how and in what ways the new drawing acts specifically to serve Frankenthaler’s more generalized abstractness both expressively and historiographically.

Drawing in itself is hardly a revolutionary feature in Frankenthaler’s painting. Her earliest stained works were very Pollock-like in their freely drawn linear emphasis. Further, most of Frankenthaler’s more recent pure color efforts used the unpredictable drawing of the edges of color areas to reject or at least to complicate simple perceptions of figure and ground. Whether hanging her images from the edges of the canvas or inclining them towards the edges from the inside, Frankenthaler has always relied on drawing to tighten up her picture surface and to push colors the way she wanted them to go. Beyond this, drawing has always seemed to be the most dependable exploratory vehicle for Frankenthaler’s constant vacillations between free form and quasi-geometrical abstraction as well as for her combination of the two in a single picture.

What then is the point of her new, more displaced manner of drawing against, or at least separate from, the color and the shapes the color assumes? Taken as a group the paintings in the recent Emmerich show fail to yield a concise answer. Instead several possibilities are posed—some of which probe rather aimlessly and others seem truly to uncover new qualities.

Paintings like Spanning, St. John, and Chairman of the Board are more demonstrations of the “look” of the new drawing than successful paintings. All three paintings elicit their images from the outside edges of the canvas, moving them in one way or another toward the center. The center is horizontally, vertically, or squarishly open, responding generally to the outside shape of the format of each painting. Having established her open center, displaying it or squeezing in upon it with outside colors, Frankenthaler then uses trails of drawing to provide a pictorial bridge or modulation between the open center and the colored surround. In Spanning the drawing vaguely connects inside corners from the surround and marks out a kind of secondary opening within the general opening of the painting’s center. While this procedure elaborates the open center aspect of much of Frankenthaler’s post-1966 work, it finally seems more a distraction than a reinforcement. Frankenthaler has made this particular kind of late Cubist color frame many times, usually with less effort and more surprise than here.

Since the relative scale of the open center to the color surround is reversed (in favor of the latter) in Chairman of the Board, both the function and the character of Frankenthaler’s excursive drawing shifts. Here she uses the drawing to broaden the pictorial scope of a small four-color unit which is jammed into the narrow, downward-bowed path of the open center of the painting. The drawing moves out from the color unit to invade and to slow the vertical fall of the upper area of the orange field color, which seems about to rejoin the lower. As it does so, the drawing reduces the weight of the two-part expanse of orange, pulls it toward the surface and produces a paperlike thinness in an image which in actual physical size and breadth of major accent leads one to anticipate far graver sensations. Chairman of the Board works, proving its points about scale and weight shift in the context of what is apparently (although not in fact) a more free floating, less frame-echoing image than Spanning’s. Yet the painting finally feels too constricted. Its oppositions seem overwrought and presented with too much definitiveness.

St. John is a vertical variant of Chairman of the Board, which tries to use drawing exclusively to alter the lateral shift of the color abutting the vertically open center. In order to achieve the type of alteration she desires, Frankenthaler uses the surround color of yellow (tinged by brown) in a portion of the central drawing. Then, as if to reciprocate, she introduces definably edged value shifts in the surround color itself. They result here in a much more even pictorial flow from area to area and from line to shape than in Chairman of the Board, but the effect of the whole still induces more critical respect than sensuous response from the spectator.

A painting called Morning which resembles St. John in many essentials is far more successful overall. In Morning the components of both color and drawing are quite spare. The vertically placed surround is split into two colors—an upgraded yellow on the left and a white on the right. The white becomes increasingly opaque as it moves toward the open center of the painting, stepping up its density very rapidly at a point roughly three inches from the inside edge. The latter effect produces a kind of secondary color trail inside the white itself—a trail much more forceful than any of the shapes produced by value changes in the yellow areas of St. John. Frankenthaler then applies abrupt and seemingly random scratchings of black lines which move out from the center and upward across the white interior edge. The result is to reinforce the separateness of the white edge as it moves into the adjacent thinner white, while reducing that edge’s contrast with the open unpainted center. A new and wholly unexpected equilibrium is established between the white edge and the ungraded yellow at the painting’s left side. Without actually introducing much color per se, Morning is made remarkably coloristic in the simple manner and confidence of its internal development. Further, the drawing seems for once a crucial rather than simply a polemical device in transforming an inexpressive free form layout into a unique experience of color.

Along with Morning the best painting in Frankenthaler’s recent show was Pistachio. Not unexpectedly Pistachio has a good deal in common with Morning, the principal difference being a substitution of explicit colors for what remain coloristic implications in Morning. Elsewhere in the show explicitly sensuous color appeared only in Renaissance and Humming Gold—two paintings which recall somewhat indifferently the more veiled color deployment of Frankenthaler’s 1964–65 paintings.

How good a painting is Pistachio? In context it seemed superb, particularly when judged against the meretricious (almost European) laboredness of the show’s weakest painting, Passage—a painting which also relates to Morning in certain respects. Passage swells the open vertical center of Morning, introducing a graded yellow in the center and filling the surround with a rather dead gray. The shape of the open center is strongly inflected, producing the appearance of a mid-third view of a standing female figure. Linear value shifts in the yellow and thin trails of red and blue green seem almost to model the lower thighs of the figure, while at the same time flattening out the effect with tentative excursions into the left side of the gray surround. The image yields a kind of truculent toughness in the inelegance of its shapes and accents, but it fails to uncover any unsuspected level of expressiveness in the process.

Pistachio, on the other hand, is both elegant and expressive of something real in Frankenthaler. That something is quite different from what we have come generally to expect from her in recent years. In some respects the painting looked slightly out of place in the recent show, yet not nearly so out of place as it might have two or three years ago. To begin with, it manages simply by tipping the axis of Morning to reject the late Cubist obsession with surrounding edges and frames that pursued Frankenthaler in so many other paintings in this show as a continuing legacy from her work of the recent past.

In the diagonally falling, cursively shaped washes of rich color—orange, purple, and pistachio green—and in the confident formal reciprocity which exists between the various washes, there is an abrupt shift in the historical supports upon which the image is based as well as a demonstration of what different supports can enable Frankenthaler to produce. The rambling abstractness of early Dove and late Gorky—shape-oriented, yet untrue to the geometry of the format—replaces late Cubism as a formal model, permitting Frankenthaler to operate inside the image in terms of progressions which spread beyond the format’s enclosing shape and which refuse to be dictated by that shape. A vaguely central area—here located in the upper left of center—is singled out for the eccentric position of a hazy, yet intense burst of cosmetic red which trails two streaks of a more intense red into the yellow area below. Elsewhere in the image a few longer streaks of color drawing—green and purple—serve either to step up the local color of the area upon which they are drawn, or to introduce a complement. To describe the component character of the image, as I have done here, makes it sound very plotted and complex (which it is), but the impact of the painting itself is remarkably natural, especially in the color, which has all of Morning’s demonstrativeness and a quality of responsible license besides.

Pistachio and Morning convince us of Frankenthaler’s quality as surely as the remainder of her show maintained our critical interest. One might wish for a later show in which problem posing gave way in more instances to a real self-confidence (particularly with regard to color) which should be there and which, one knows, could be, if only the multiple issues of abstractness (aside from color) were for a moment set by the board.

Kermit Champa