New York

Helen Frankenthaler

Andre Emmerich Gallery Downtown

If we didn’t know that Helen Frankenthaler is a very fine painter tures which she showed at the Emmerich Gallery were by a young artist subjecting himself/herself to severe restraint so as to make only subtle mistakes rather than gross ones. But we do know who she is, and we come away disappointed.

There are close relations between Frankenthaler’s sculptures and her painting. Heart of London Map, for instance, is much like the central motif of her beautiful painting Chairman of the Board (1971), subsequently mounted on a Smith- and Caro-like drumhead, which in turn rests on an open cylindrical bottom. The affinities which the paintings often show with Matisse are as conscious here—perhaps partly because of the assuring precedent of the sculpting painter—as to comprise the very theme of one work, Matisse’s Table, although that particular piece relates much more closely to Caro’s sculpture than to any table that I can recognize in Matisse’s paintings.

The main weakness in Frankenthaler’s sculpture is its timid planarity. As in sculptures by Noland, the work finds itself in a state of embarrassed distress, seemingly unable to comprehend why a perfectly nice painting motif should not be impressive standing by itself in a room. Because of this primary dilemma affinities with paintings by other artists also impress themselves. Ceiling Horses, for example, reminds me of Bradley Walker Tomlin’s forms, while the split bushings or mechanical casings of Pedestal evoke Morton Schamberg and Picabia. (This indirect analogy with Dada is reinforced by Harp, where a harplike form rides on a kind of sled that has the word “NO” on its edge.)

David Smith is big here. Together with Brancusi, his presence informs the highly totemic Ten After All, where a big drill-bit with winglike handles precariously surmounts a tall, tilting vertical sequence of fused forms. Like Smith’s open friezes in its extreme planarity, Brice “For Charlie” also reminds me of an equally flat, and similarly toollike piece by Haydn Larson. Frankenthaler’s sculptures are eclectic and academic as well as—in comparison with her paintings—weak. The base of Brice “For Charlie” is cut out of flat sheet metal in a lovely shape that relates to Matisse’s cut out forms. The shape is lovely, but as a working part of a tectonic composition it suffers a certain loss of grace. Frankenthaler reminds us that most “experiments” proceed by failure.

Joseph Masheck