In the days following Helen Frankenthaler’s death, on December 27, 2011, my Facebook feed teemed with JPEG memorials, makeshift tributes to a painter many had forgotten. The image I remember best was a photograph of the artist in her studio, taken by Douglas Banks for Life magazine in 1956; it shows Frankenthaler sitting on top of, and surrounded by, her canvases of the previous half decade, including the breakthrough Mountains and Sea, 1952, as if ensconced in a sort of aqueous dream-cubicle.
Banks’s portrait of Frankenthaler is seductive, but also troubling: While ostensibly emphasizing the physical contact between artist and artwork, it has the effect of distancing one from the other, encouraging us to doubt whether the young woman in the picture (only twenty-eight in 1956) could possibly have birthed such wild pictorial ferment. The photo casts her in the role of seated oracle,
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