New York

Helen Frankenthaler

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Helen Frankenthaler has been on cruise control for nearly a decade, or ever since she began further refining her already generalized, economically composed paintings of the middle ’70s. Her recent works take no chances, make no attempt to explore other possibilities. Frankenthaler has become intellectually lazy, content to go over old ground; at best, the modest-sized works on paper she chose to exhibit here are smaller, less demanding versions of her paintings from the ’70s. They are like margarine—substitutes for the real thing. Elegant parodies allowing Frankenthaler to reach down to a status-conscious audience with a relatively small budget, these works on paper fulfill the need of those who want to own more than a print but cannot afford a painting.

Drawing once played a large role in Frankenthaler’s art, but here she seemed smugly satisfied to recycle a stock set of techniques, methods, and ways of phrasing visual incident. Untitled, February 1984, is composed of three horizontally aligned bands of brown acrylic on light-brown paper. Yellow, white, black, and light blue lines are used to loosely structure the bands. Perpendicularly placed at the top of this rectangular configuration is a staccato trail of violet. As in the other works in this exhibition, Frankenthaler’s interest is in design and balance rather than in a broader notion of composition. Little holds the eye or provokes the intelligence. Improvisation has disintegrated into a matter of routine and habit; the effect is similar to listening to a jazz soloist mindlessly practicing the same snippet from a shopworn tune.

In 1981 Carl Belz organized an exhibition of Frankenthaler’s work from the ’50s at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. Many of the paintings in that show, along with some from the ’60s, secure a permanent place for Frankenthaler in the history of American painting. During the mid ’70s, however, Frankenthaler started resting on her laurels. To produce smaller versions of paintings in order to satisfy the marketplace is an indication of moral bankruptcy, and for that Frankenthaler must be held accountable.

John Yau