New York

Helen Frankenthaler

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Although Helen Frankenthaler’s art-historical status is secure, it seems her fate always to be judged in the shadow of her Abstract Expressionist precursors. The designation “second generation” is for her as much a stigma as an acknowledgment. By temperament and sex as much as chronology, Frankenthaler was never a likely candidate for the full-blown deification inspired by the heroic postures of “first generation” artists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Although she shares with her predecessors an allegiance to the primacy of process and gesture, the expressionist label fits her imperfectly. From the start, Frankenthaler has played a kind of Matisse to Pollock’s Picasso. Where Pollock’s project has been imbued with shamanistic portent, Frankenthaler’s lyricism is wholly of this world. An expedient but not entirely inapposite view situates Frankenthaler midway between the angst-fueled rituals of the Abstract Expressionists and the no-nonsense materialism of the color-field painters who succeeded her.

Frankenthaler is credited with inventing stain painting, and she continues to mine the territory she staked out more than a quarter-century ago. The funny thing is that while one might expect a confident late flowering—an effusion of fully realized canvases—the paintings in her recent show are surprisingly inconsistent. Even given the fact that this is partly the result of the nature of the technique (the direct stain onto raw canvas doesn’t leave much room for revision, and indeed an element of chance is an essential ingredient in the process), still, from painting to painting and even within single works, the level of realization ranges wildly. Frankenthaler is capable of gorgeous visual epiphanies, but hackneyed effects are almost as common.

Heading Southwest (all works 1988) is an inspired example of her late manner. From the uninterrupted band of saturated green that runs along the bottom of the canvas, to the peach and blue-gray atmospherics, to the pigment-heavy, teal blue incrustation at the center of the painting, the sensual effects are keyed to an almost suffocating pitch. A single dab of cadmium cues the enormous landscape scale to which the title refers. Equally impressive is the large Casanova. A foreboding black stain hangs heavily over a field punctuated by colorfully whimsical Miroesque incident. The tan-colored passage in Toward Dark is an example of an inspired section of a painting that otherwise falls back on worn-out devices. Intrusions of color along the paintings’ edges that establish and reestablish the pictorial imperative of the rectangle seem wholly academic. Less convincing still are the drawn-from-the-tube lines of paint that appear in a number of the canvases. Presumably intended to activate scale, they seem plainly coy.

With a Museum of Modern Art retrospective coming up, and a deluxe coffee-table volume of her work just out, Frankenthaler’s work is ripe for reconsideration. When she first inaugurated her stain technique, the lyrical evocations of sea and sand evinced a kind of southern corporality. These may have seemed less substantial than the dark broodings of the top-shelf expressionists, but they have proved extremely durable. In a kind of literal acknowledgment of her characteristic temperament, one painting includes a recognizable palm tree—an homage, perhaps, to those sun-drenched Mediterranean views that were a staple of the early Moderns. If certain paintings are not sure hits, from the vantage point of hindsight, Frankenthaler’s oeuvre looks increasingly like the definitive manifestation of a sensibility that has found its perfect vehicle.

Jack Bankowsky