Helen Frankenthaler: More profound than lyric

After seeing the exhibition at Gagosian, I’ve become a huge Helen Frankenthaler fan.

Curated by John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, the Frankenthaler exhibition (pictured above) features about thirty dazzling paintings Frankenthaler made in her E. 21st Street studio from 1950-1959, the productive and creative period of her life after she had graduated from Bennington College. At Bennington, studying with painter  Paul Feely, Frankenthaler worked in a cubist idiom but once she moved to New York, where she partnered with opinionated critic Clement Greenberg for five years and later married Robert Motherwell, Frankenthaler began to develop her own distinctive voice. Unprimed canvases, thinly-applied paint, evocative color, and inventive markmaking figure prominently in these ambitious large-scale canvases that fuse making and meaning so elegantly.

I found a transcript on the Smithsonian website from an insightful 1968 interview recorded with Barbara Rose in which she talks about her fearless paintings from those early years and discusses her groundbreaking use of materials and color. Here are some excerpts.

MS. FRANKENTHALER: And I never really thought about color at all. When I first started thinking about color it was sort of out of perversity. In other words, say around ’50 and ’51, it occurred to me that something ugly or muddy could be a color as well as something clear and bright and a nameable, beautiful, known color.

MS. ROSE: Why did that occur to you? Do you know?

MS. FRANKENTHALER: I don’t know, sometimes I think it came out of something very saving in me. I find, for example, that I will buy a quantity of paint but I hate it when it dries up and I haven’t used it. Or if I have a pot of leftover green and a pot of leftover pink I will very often mix it just because I want to use it up. It’s like leftover food in the icebox. And of course if it doesn’t work on the picture – well, that’s a loss. And I’m saying all this and also saying that I throw out I can’t tell you how many paintings a year. I mean for every one that I show there are many, many in shreds in garbage cans. But the attempt and the result is often from what’s around and is available that I can invent with. And people have often said that there seems to be so few materials around. Well, I have all the colors and all the tools and all the canvas but I like to – not for the sake of money or retentiveness – but I like to play with the possibilities of the limits I’ve made for myself. [Inaudible.]

MS. ROSE: With what’s around, in other words?

MS. FRANKENTHALER: Yeah. And then I can feel – well, this is all wrong, throw it out, open all that.

MS. ROSE: It’s a very American thing, though, to use what’s [inaudible], and it’s very anti-European, you know more [inaudible]. That you use what’s there. Whatever, that you use it, and that’s how, in a sense, the whole boundaries of art are pushed out. Because there isn’t an everywhere notion of “This is art” and “This isn’t.” It’s like, whatever’s around….

Helen Frankenthaler, Mother Goose Melody, 1959, oil on canvas, 82 x 104 inches � 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography � Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

MS. ROSE: What do you think painting should give? I mean what should painting be able to give?

MS. FRANKENTHALER: For the painter? Or for the world?

MS. ROSE: Both.

MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, me I think it depends on who you are. Of course you’re asking me, so I can say. But I think it gives different things to different people depending on their–.

MS. ROSE: Well, what do you want from art? What’s your–?

MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, I think it’s a life measuring stick. And I’m concerned with being myself, getting to know more and more what that is, what is possible, and what the real meaning of beauty and development is. I’m concerned with development and growth. But I am in my everyday life. I hate to feel deadly. But that does not mean that repetition or experiment isn’t in the total picture of growth and development. And I think that pace and place differently at different times for each person….

Helen Frankenthaler, Eden, 1956, oil on canvas, 103 x 117 inches � 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever

MS. FRANKENTHALER: There are two words that are applied to me often that I
think are very wrong but there aren’t any other words that I can think
of at the moment that would –. But one is “lyrical” and the other is
MS. ROSE: You don’t think of yourself as a lyrical painter?
MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, I understand what’s meant when that word is
used in relation to my pictures. And I don’t think “lyric” is a put
down but “lyric” never implies the profound enough.
I mean, most of [inaudible] are “lyric.” But, because of the break up,
 I don’t know, that’s not really what I’m trying to say. In other
words, “lyric” can imply light, untouched, angelic, witty. Which are
marvelous qualities. But “light” can also imply simple, which is not a
marvelous quality. I don’t know, I’m getting too tired.

MS. ROSE: Well, I have a feeling that what you’re trying to say is
that there’s some kind of equivalent of a spirit that you’re trying to
get in your painting. 

MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, I started to say I went in ’56 and 7 I
think I let a lot of things come out in pictures. But I would sort of
–. What happens to me, things get simplified and simplified and
simplified. And then I go through a period where either they become
more baroque or in a bad way I divvy them up. Or in a good way I
reverse it and I mean the way I destroy. I had been doing things like
[inaudible]. Well, I did not want to become minimal, it’s not my
gestalt. And just did something else….

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on canvas, 86 3/8 x 117 � inches � 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever. On extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Helen Frankenthaler, installation view.

MS. ROSE: Well, at what point did you become conscious of being a color painter?
MS. FRANKENTHALER: Only when the world put those labels on it. In other words, I mixed funny shades of colors and used them but I used them because they made the drawing in my picture move. It wasn’t because I was in love with the idea of putting color down. But these colors were the expedient things to use for the way I drew and I say “draw” not meaning line, though it might have included line. But the way I drew or envisioned or made my work. And it happened that it came out stressing color. But I did not have a vision or a notion about color per se being the thing that would make me or my pictures work or operate.
MS. ROSE: But the colors get much more vivid as the work goes on.
MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, I think as in anything involving work, experience, trial, error, accident, that suddenly there is an oeuvre and you read signs in it and then you either pick up or follow those signs or reject them and a strain or a sensibility or a wrist or an eye develops that becomes what a style is.

MS. ROSE: But the wrist really goes out of your work completely in a visible way.
MS. ROSE: Yeah.
MS. FRANKENTHALER: You mean in color ?
MS. ROSE: I mean, well, I guess I mean really the drawing element disappears at a certain point.
MS. FRANKENTHALER: Well, I think the lines disappear. I don’t think the drawing does and I think that for me any picture that works even if it is in the guise of pure color application, if it works, involved drawing. That is falt space on a flat surface. And for me, and I always say this, whether it’s a Titian or a [Kenneth] Noland, the ones that come off work in that depth and the color perhaps it is divine and the thing that makes it work, but it is line color. If it doesn’t work then it’s decorative or dead or just applied colors on a surface. That’s what wallpaper is. And that’s the difference between the striped wallpaper and a great Noland.
MS. ROSE: The difference is between applied and drawn color. That’s very interesting. Did you ever work in watercolor?
MS. ROSE: Were you ever conscious of transferring a kind of watercolor technique to oil painting?
MS. FRANKENTHALER: I don’t know. I think there was so much thick painting around that I was very drawn to thin blotches.
MS. ROSE: In other words, it was a kind of reaction to painting you didn’t like? MS. FRANKENTHALER: Yeah. That sort of dragged through with a palette knife.
(Credit: Oral history interview with Helen Frankenthaler, 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.)

Helen Frankenthaler, Western Dreams, 1957, oil on canvas, 70 x 86 inches � 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever
Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1951, oil and enamel on canvas, 56 3/8 x 84 � inches � 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeeve

The show is only up through April 13, so make sure to check it out. Not only do the paintings look eerily contemporary, but the exhibition will undoubtedly change how we see Frankenthaler’s work and her place in art history. Once valued primarily as the transitional bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting, Frankenthaler’s compelling and inventive work from the 1950s is worth reexamining. A definite must-see.

Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959,” curated by John Elderfield. Gagosian, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through April 13, 2013.

Related posts:
The discourse: Helen Frankenthaler (2011)
Last chance to see “Colorfield Remix” in DC (2007)


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  1. Jon from New York

    Terrific post, and indeed a great show. What struck me most was Frankenthaler's palpable evolution during the relatively brief period covered in the exhibition (essentially, the 1950s) from being quite literal and at least loosely representational to being more resolutely abstract. The shift is very satisfying, and to my mind fully justifies her suggestion that if she was ever mainly "lyrical," she moved on to drill far more deeply into the subtleties of line and color.

  2. Wow!! This is fabulous. I live in West Virginia and do not get to New York very often. Thank you so much for posting the pictures and for the content. I have renewed appreciation for her work. The color and line is just extremely powerful and emotive.

  3. Thank you for this post about a wonderful artist who is very missed. Critics take note: beauty ain't so scarey afterall…

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