New York

Helen Frankenthaler

Andre Emmerich Gallery

No one can make you thrill to the sight of a thin yellow line meandering across the bottom of a canvas or warm to a broad spot of white placed smack in the center of a composition like Helen Frankenthaler. An artist whose dedication to her own vision is well-known, Frankenthaler has built her career on the firmest foundation, that of commitment. Since the early ’50s, when she distinguished herself among the younger generation of New York School painters, she has never gone back on her initial enthusiasms. Continuity rather than radical change has been the basis of her work. While her style has become familiar, it is also full of surprises, as this show of new works demonstrates.

Frankenthaler, in her latest paintings, offers what amounts to a primer on the visual dynamics of abstract painting. She knows how to paint a surface so that it teems with evocative potential. While her paintings are indeed beautiful, they demonstrate that elegant forms and smashing colors can be made to speak in engagingly suggestive ways.

Paris at Night, 1986, displays a dark ground made up of muted brown tones from which a number of other forms appear to emerge, dominated by two white circular configurations. In writing about Frankenthaler’s use of color, words such as “brown” and “white” are only approximations for the singular tones she obtains. The energy of her colors carries over to the forms themselves, in which different physical aspects such as weight, density, and shape are articulated. In her work these forms retain an aura of surprise and seem to be continually in the process of coming into being. This sense of evolving form might be applied as a principle by which abstract painting either does or doesn’t transcend its own physicality. The suggestion of a dynamic state of immanent action is what imbues abstract surfaces with that most elusive and yet desirable of elements: presence.

Frankenthaler’s paintings have the kind of presence that triggers associations. On one level, Paris at Night may be interpreted as a poetic paean to the psychological processes of self-enlightenment. The painting also seems to evoke the lights of Paris, which are alluded to in the title. But the imagery in this and in other paintings by Frankenthaler is open enough to accommodate a variety of readings, however fanciful or far-flung. And that, finally, is the promise Abstract Expressionism held forth for a brave new world of pictorial experience more than 30 years ago, and upon which Frankenthaler continues to deliver generously.

Ronny Cohen