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PRINT April 2012

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Helen Frankenthaler

ANNE M. WAGNER

LEARNING OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER’S DEATH this past December jolted my sense of time, though it is hard to say precisely why. It is as if past and present have become muddled, as if somehow, in some section of my cultural subconscious, the news of the loss had preceded its actual occurrence—had preceded it, and been accepted, absorbed: déjà vu, with no shiver in its wake. “She should have died hereafter,” says Macbeth on learning of the untimely death of his wife. In Frankenthaler’s case, or at least in the crucial matter of her reputation, the loss seems to have been inflicted long ago. Nor is this sensation the function of her longevity alone. In a season when the London museums are toasting the work of several art-world elders—Gerhard Richter, now eighty; Yayoi Kusama, who is eighty-three; David Hockney, a mere stripling at seventy-five—it comes as a shock to learn that Frankenthaler, who seems so much a member of an earlier generation, is their contemporary. She died at eighty-three.

Why this strange sense of distance? I think it should be laid at the door of one decisive biographical fact: Helen Frankenthaler’s career and reputation were first fostered, and then held hostage, by the vicissitudes of “periodization” in recent American high culture. (Behind the seemingly scientific word period lie, always, discontinuities of value and judgment, changing conceptions of art and its purposes—never more so than in the past fifty years.) Rightly or wrongly, Frankenthaler’s work, with its floating fields and veils of color, now seems a thing of the past, cut off by our inability to understand its ambitions or grasp its effects. Art that has fallen out of fashion is not easy to take in. Yet it remains no small feat to develop a new way of painting, as she did: She devised a tactic of not just marking but staining the canvas, allowing pigment to unite with its unprimed weave. Even so, the implications of that signal achievement—the intensely optical presence of its effects of loosened shape and heightened color—have been overshadowed by a larger narrative, in which the artist seems to play a marginal role. This is nothing less than the story of modernism and postmodernism, avant-garde and mass culture; if Frankenthaler has been shelved among the modernist bygones, this is, to repeat, because the present does not quite know what to make of the innovations at the heart of her work.

How did those innovations come about? Certainly the route Frankenthaler first followed seems entirely “appropriate,” as Jane Austen might have put it, for a young woman of her age and station. Appropriate, but by no means inevitable, despite having been paved by an intellectual and material privilege that Austen would also have been likely to note. Access matters, and in Frankenthaler’s case, her upper-middle-class Jewish background (her father was a judge) took her to Dalton, the venerable day school for the children of moneyed New Yorkers, and thence to Bennington College in 1946–49, an opportunity enriched by the presence of intellectuals like W. H. Auden and Erich Fromm, and expanded even more by an annual independent-study term that allowed students to spread their wings. One year Frankenthaler enrolled at the Art Students League; another term was spent studying at the Fourteenth Street studio of painter Wallace Harrison, and in the third, she taught art in Boston, worked for a literary magazine, and traveled to Europe. By 1950, a year after graduation, she had met Clement Greenberg, who introduced her to his artist friends.

Here we might want to change novelists; perhaps turn from Austen to Mary McCarthy, to pick up what is an increasingly colorful tale. It is a testament to how long ago the 1950s seem that bare biographical facts now read like exotic fictions, a chronicle of some distant and more heroic age: To speak of Frankenthaler’s first decade as a painter in Manhattan is to assemble a cast of characters—not just Greenberg but also Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, David Smith—who sixty years later seem larger than life. By now, we’ve seen them on-screen in Pollock, with Ed Harris in the title role. Has the time come for Frankenthaler? Her archive, too, is bursting with photographs to inspire both retro decor and Method acting: Clem and a bright-eyed Helen along with Jackson and Lee around a table at Eddie Condon’s, or regrouping on the lawn at Springs, a Pollock canvas hanging on the barn behind them; or Helen, arms around Smith, with the legendary 1952 Mountains and Sea as background to her playful hug. Then come the years with Robert Motherwell, and then . . . what? No car crash, no suicide, just many years spent making art.

The art is the real story. Its roots reach deep into the distinctive artistic education that, as a young woman, Frankenthaler continued to acquire in the years after Bennington. Her 1950s constituted a truly singular experience, providing what, in retrospect, allowed a decidedly high-cultural artistic formation. Unlike her coevals in Britain, say—for example, Alison Smithson (1928–1993) and Bridget Riley (b. 1931), whose artistic educations and critical commitments allowed them to sidestep the influence of Continental modernism—Frankenthaler moved within the orbit of Matisse and Picasso until, under Greenberg’s influence, she was propelled into the force field of Abstract Expressionism. Yet this change of allegiance brought with it an intensification, not a lessening, of her immersion in the history of Western painting, along with a growing ambition to match.

Today, it is increasingly difficult to imagine an ambitious young artist making a concerted effort to study the past of painting. But in the ’50s, Frankenthaler took her titles from the old masters (Europa, 1957, Venus and the Mirror, 1956) and literary theory (Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1957); the Old Testament (Jacob’s Ladder, 1957, Mount Sinai, 1956) and the French hostelries she stayed at while looking at art (Hôtel du Quai Voltaire, 1956, reaches back to Paris and the Louvre, while Hotel Cro-Magnon, 1958, like Before the Caves, 1958, and Cave Memory, 1959, is bound up with recollections of Altamira and Lascaux). These early loyalties stayed with her. In subsequent decades, she paid painterly tribute to Titian, Goya, and Manet even while maintaining an insistent abstraction as the core of her work.

If I were called upon to sum up the means and results of Frankenthaler’s artistic immersion, I would dwell on the sense they convey of pictorial disarticulation. Let me try to spell out what I mean. To encounter one of the many canvases declaratively grounded in the Western tradition—Las Mayas, for example, or Winter Hunt, both of which, looking back at Goya and Bruegel, were produced in 1958—the sense is of a compositional taking apart. Much of the surface is empty; such marks as do occur are lines, spatters, pours, sprays, whose interconnections are episodic at best. Like Pollock’s pours, such pictorial incidents index the gestures that made them, but without any unifying rhythm or form. The result is as much an unmaking as its opposite; we seem to be receiving messages spelled out in a jangled Morse code. This way of painting was already understood in 1957 as an art of process, of improvisation, in which—and this is its crucial characteristic—“no one picture announces itself as the only picture, or as the end of the world” (to quote one of Frankenthaler’s early critics, Sonya Rudikoff). Instead, painting goes on, a compilation of responses, memories, actions, accumulated without rhythm or pattern, in a space where time’s music has been stilled. It was only in the 1960s, when Frankenthaler could reduce the number of such incidents while expanding their shaped presence, that she joined the ranks of the Color Field painters. It was Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland who returned pattern and rhythm to painting, and with it, something that Frankenthaler never aimed for: a signature gestalt. It may well be that it was then, in the context of 1960s simplification and patterning, that her critical fate was sealed.

In 1989, Frankenthaler was given her only major retrospective, a show that traveled from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Detroit. By then, Andy Warhol, who was also born in 1928, had been dead for two years. Which is to say that unlike Frankenthaler, he was not granted the many decades that Macbeth so wanted for his lady wife. Yet now, at long last, this unlikely duo of twentieth-century Americans allow us to imagine some artistic Elysium where, against all the odds, the two might possibly sit down to talk. Can we imagine Frankenthaler saying to Warhol, as she once did to writer E. A. Carmean Jr., “I am an artist of paint, making discoveries”? To which Warhol would surely reply, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine.”

And then, to illustrate his point, Warhol would gesture toward one of his paintings—a dance diagram, preferably, with its fox-trotting pattern of footsteps spelling out the ABC of the ballroom dancer’s skills. How could Frankenthaler—Frankenthaler as she described herself to Carmean—possibly respond? Surely she would have seen at once that Warhol’s work is a parody of the whole poetics of discovery, a satire that replaces the deeply personal dance of improvisation with a rote choreography of moves. And she would remember the occasion when (like Warhol, if to opposite ends) she reached into her own understanding of Pollock’s work, allowing the footprints she had left in the margins of her magisterial Seven Types of Ambiguity to remain there, part of the collection of incidents and accidents that her process of painting—or should we call it the process of discovery?—brought into view. The canvas provides evidence of painting as diaristic accumulation as well as momentary invention, but the viewer is left to decide what the artist might have found.

At present, it seems likely that there are not many curators or art historians who are well placed to write or speak at length about what in Frankenthaler’s painting continues to seem inventive, and what should be looked at anew. A retrospective exhibition is sorely needed, and it is to be hoped, if that’s the right word, that Frankenthaler’s death will serve as the necessary catalyst. But who is to curate the show? To look back on some recent US exhibitions—Mary Heilmann at the Orange County Museum of Art, Anne Truitt at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, “Abstract Expressionist New York” at MoMA—is to believe that a show that evinced the necessary freshness, the alertness to painting as discovery, could be forthcoming and, more than this, could do justice to Frankenthaler’s art.

One thing such a show might aim to accomplish is to demonstrate how alive Frankenthaler’s work stayed through the decades of her long-lived “hereafter,” particularly in its relationship to the practice of younger artists committed to abstraction. I think of the lyrical work of Cora Cohen (b. 1943), for example, and the explosively idiosyncratic effects of Charline von Heyl (b. 1960). Despite the differences between these two painters—and there are many—both are “artists of paint” as well as abstractionists; like Frankenthaler, both “discover” each painting as it is being made. In their work the antimechanical is a resolved position, an approach to painting, and the results are crucial to the future of abstraction, the hereafter to come.

Anne M. Wagner lives in London. Her book A House Divided: American Art Since 1955 was published in February.