Helen Frankenthaler

The Guggenheim Museum has given Helen Frankenthaler a small show, “After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-59.” She may well wonder whether or not they’ve done her a favor. Her often large canvases have been crammed into two mingy tower galleries, and there is a strange precision to the span of years covered. After her initial breakthrough of the stained-canvas technique in Mountains and Sea, 1952, Frankenthaler reverted to a more conventional AbEx painterly mode. The pictures of 1956-59 represent a return to the innovation on which her place in art history rests: spacious pictures that “breathe” rather than those that gag on thick-paint sputum. Compared to contemporaneous work by Richard Pousette-Dart or Bradley Walker Tomlin, let alone the scores of Tenth Street nobodies, her canvases look very fresh indeed. But by including none of Frankenthaler’s other work from the decade, the curator, Julia Brown, has quite consciously decontextualized the artist. An exhibition like “Frankenthaler in the ’50s” might easily have been assembled. Instead, by implication we get the Greatest Hits, as if 1956–59 necessarily represented a summation and everything was downhill after that, which isn’t the case.

From the point of view of historical progress (to wit, Clement Greenberg’s view), Mountains and Sea alone is the significant painting. And Frankenthaler’s innovation wasn’t really an innovation: CG had probably alerted her to the way the oil in certain 1951 paintings by Jackson Pollock had seeped into the cotton duck, becoming “one” with it. But Frankenthaler’s success popularized the stain method. Greenberg famously brought Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to her studio in 1953, and the two adopted her technique, producing by the mid- to late-’50s paintings that would actually better correspond to Greenberg’s call for unity of impression (opticality). And while the critic had been romantically involved with Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1955, in the big scheme he didn’t really like her paintings that much. They were too stuck in compositional strategies that, in light of the major work of Pollock and Newman, seemed hopelessly old hat: balanced elements, point-counterpoint, etc. Greenberg called it “the Cubist hangover.”

The paintings in “After Mountains and Sea” all suffer from the same hangover. And if the washes of stained color look immaterial, the iconological corniness has been laid on thick. Frankenthaler is mired in landscape. In one picture, an odalisque reclines in the foreground of a Derainesque surf-’n’-turf composition. Most of the paintings here are better than this, but a certain vulgarity of conception is always in the air. And the bad ones really suck, with their bubbly masses and insufficiently random smears (e.g., Europa, 1957, and Las Mayas, 1958). The best pictures are the cleanest: New York Bamboo, 1957, and Nude, 1958. Some of Frankenthaler’s works, with their broad expanses of “lyric” color on big empty grounds, attain a more fully realized Color Field look, even if that was not her intent. Hurricane and Stride, both 1969, almost hit it, but their very titles banish them to the historical retrograde—the uncoolness—of referential form.

Frankenthaler’s life is as interesting historically as her work. Her Upper East Side childhood is mentioned in the standard accounts of her career. That life of privilege continued when she achieved success as an artist. She and Robert Motherwell married in 1958 and went on to enjoy a glamorous life together. Extensive contacts within the art community gave their version of uptown ritziness a splash of bohemian color. Her paintings are an accurate reflection of this milieu. (Consider New York Bamboo, whose elegant grisaille palette and chinoiserie-like forms evoke the decor of a Park Avenue living room of the period.) By the late ’50s, the AbEx blotto look was hardly radical; it was actively patronized by the haute bourgeoisie, or at least its more adventurous elements. Rauschenberg’s devastating send-ups of action painting, Factum I and Factum II, both 1957, belong to the very same period as the pictures celebrated in this show. Frankenthaler’s work is trapped in the dilemma of being radical enough for the institutionalized avant-garde of her time, but (to appropriate a bit of deconstructionist lingo) always already passé.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.