It’s been a lovely summer for fans of Helen Frankenthaler. Since May, the American artist’s work has been seen in Venice (at the Biennale) and in Rome (at the Gagosian), with another show, Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, opening just last weekend in the Hamptons, at the Parrish Art Museum.
In the light of recent surveys like “Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera” at the Met, “Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s” at the Whitney, and the tremendous “Joan Mitchell: I carry my landscapes around with me” at David Zwirner, a focus on Frankenthaler feels apropos; a pioneer in the Color Field movement, she enjoyed a long and varied career in abstraction. (She died in 2011, aged 83.) But the particular parameters of her influence are worth a closer look: How, after all this time, has Helen Frankenthaler maintained her hold?
“For more than 30 years,” wrote art historian Michael Brenson in the Times in 1983, “Helen Frankenthaler has been creating paintings that walk a tightrope between spontaneity and self-consciousness, improvisation and deliberation, dissolution and structure.” In the catalogue for “Abstract Climates”—co-curated by Elizabeth A.T. Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Lise Motherwell, board president of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, where the exhibition was mounted last summer—a photograph from 1969 tells a similar story: Frankenthaler, clad all in white, is seen crouched in her Provincetown, Massachusetts studio, rolling up a canvas. The same diametric forces at play in her paintings are right there in the picture; the consideration and control (see: the neat hair; the immaculate chinos; the button-down shirt rolled tightly at the elbows), as well as the willful embrace of chaos (note Frankenthaler’s slender, white knee pressed into that unholy mess of a paint-splattered floor).
The great washes and streaks and flecks of color that characterize much of her work were applied not with a brush, in most cases, but with a sponge, squeegee, or her fingers, when not poured straight from the can. Frankenthaler’s great innovation was the “soak-stain” technique, which complicated the line between object and ground by letting thinned-out paint seep into—and thereby activate—the raw fabric of a canvas. (“For Frankenthaler, the canvas is not just the site of the image. Stained with pigment, it is the image,” observed Carter Ratcliff in 1989.) Used in Mountains and Sea (1952), the work that launched Frankenthaler’s career, the method was dutifully adapted by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and other contemporaries—just as her friend Jackson Pollock’s quirk of laying his canvas on the floor had been dutifully adapted by Frankenthaler.
As pretty and pert as she was in person (in 1967, Vogue deemed the New York City native “a vital woman whose good looks are as remarkable as the range of her intelligence”), Frankenthaler was compulsively creative, her process a deeply physical one. In abandoning the easel, she explained in 1993, “instead of dealing head-on with four sides and four corners, you felt the boundaries of the canvas—the scale of it—were endless; that thrust of shoulder as compared to wrist alone.” (Wrote Gene Baro in 1971, “A Frankenthaler painting is nothing more nor less than a record of the artist’s involvement … Her gestures are like a dance’s gestures, for in the end they define all.”) Yet, in life as in work, Frankenthaler also knew the value of limits. She was a woman of steady habits, working from nine to one each day (“My life is square and bourgeois,” she told the Times in 1989. “I like calm and continuity”)—and when she painted, she liked to leave gaps of empty canvas; “air spaces,” she sometimes called them. Her paintings could overwhelm, but seldom did they suffocate.
In an essay, Motherwell—whose father, Robert Motherwell, was married to Frankenthaler from 1958 to 1971—recalls her stepmother’s “enormous internal pressure to produce.” “When not working,” Frankenthaler told the Guggenheim’s Julia Brown in 1998, “... [there] is a certain buildup of guilt from the possession of one’s gift, a hidden rage that becomes a depression until the gift is used again. The way to overcome that raging depression is to work as if survival depended on it. There is no freedom until the true self is expressed, and the only way is through work.” In Provincetown, where she summered with Robert Motherwell and his children (“Abstract Climates” centers on works both produced in, and inspired by that seafront town), Frankenthaler was enormously productive, creating as many as 45 paintings over a three-month period. Ranging in size from 14 x 14 inches to over 10 x 11 feet, the oils, acrylics, and watercolors on display at the Parrish bewitch with their peculiar play of color, light, texture, and opacity. The diagrammatic vernacular of Provincetown I (1961) and Orange Breaking Through (1961) gives way to the lush, watery layers of Blue Atmosphere II (1963) and Low Tide (1963), and the discrete blocks of tone in Indian Summer (1967) and Blessing of the Fleet (1969).
Frankenthaler once described Flood (1967), which commands its own gallery wall, with a practical poeticism that suits the picture well. “It was painted in my ‘tree-house’ studio, a studio on the second floor, in stands of pine,” she recalled. “It was not painted by the Bay. The studio floor was small, and I wanted to work on a canvas as large as possible. Once the canvas was laid down I had only about a foot of margin to stand on between the canvas edges and the wall. I recall that there was a lot of liquid paint on the floor. The studio was flooded with color.”
Immersed within her own artistic vision, she devised a canvas that was beautiful and strange, fluid and articulated, earthy and divine. At its best, even 50 years later, Frankenthaler’s balancing act defies description — as well it should. “Whatever it is that makes a panting great,” she said herself in 1989, “that gives it its spirit, is not verbal.”
“Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown” runs through October 27.
Originally Appeared on Vogue