Art Criticism

Imagining Landscapes – Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952-1976

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.’
Helen Frankenthaler

The history of modern painting is that of a form which spent much of its energy on detaching itself from illusion in order to acquire its own frame of reference. As that guru of Modernism, Clement Greenberg, wrote: “The essence of Modernism lies… in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticise the discipline itself…” Art was to be rendered ‘pure’ in its independence and self-definition, freed from the painterly dissembling of Old Masters with their illusionistic tendencies. As Greenberg insisted, “Where Old Masters created an illusion of space into which one could imagine oneself walking, the illusion created by a Modernist is one into which one can only look, can travel through only with the eye.”

Revisiting Helen Frankenthaler’s saturated paintings at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, it seems that Greenberg was only partly right. The human mind makes associations, sees shapes and colours in terms of memories: objects and places, landscapes and wide skies. In his bid for purity, his desire to decouple painting from any possible narrative that might not be implicit within the medium itself, Greenberg’s strictures forgot the power of poetic metaphor that was to be explored in the 1960s in the phenomenological writings on perception of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Helen Frankenthaler’s art career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition Mountains and Sea. During the 50s her works tended to centre around pictorial incidents that took place in the middle of the picture space, where the edges were of little consequence. Slowly she began to experiment with more linear and organic shapes, eventually using single stains and blots of solid colour against plain white grounds, moving in 1963, to work in acrylic paint that allowed for a greater opacity.

Whilst intellectually acutely aware of the risks of placing a mark on a blank canvas, the influence of Jackson Pollock encouraged her away from her formal art training towards a fluid spontaneity. This allowed shapes and forms to develop on her canvas, to flow so that unconsciously they transformed into an image. Despite her awareness of spatial possibilities, of the pushed and pulled effects of the thinned pigments, the adjustment and blurring of her edges, it’s the emotional quality of these flooded works that give them their power. They are not simply intellectual exercises but felt, sentient works. Shapes open and close, coalesce and dissolve. Light is vibrant, then dematerialises, as in the luminous Sea Goddess, 1963 or Narcissus of the same year, suggesting the sense of being in the work, in a landscape or a sunset rather than describing a landscape or sunset of itself.

Sea Goddess, 1963, Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas, 70 x 94 in, 177.8 x 238.8 cm © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London, Photo: Robert McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

It was in the 1960s that the term Colour Field painting was used to describe Frankenthaler’s large areas of saturated colour. By the 70s, the soak and stain technique had given way to a thicker, brighter, almost Fauvist use of colour. The physical act of painting – as for Pollack – was an emotional one as she knelt on the floor, pouring and soaking her unsized duck cotton – manipulating the paint in her own personal choreography. Like Pollack, her paintings express her bodily relationship with the canvas – the stretch of an arm, the heft of her shoulder. Her soak-stained technique doesn’t portray the world in any graphic or photographic sense – though at times they do read like aerial views and it’s hard not to see a figure or landscape emerging from the pools of colour – but make demands on the viewers’ perception. Nothing feels quiet complete. There’s an invitation for the mind and the eye to take the image further, to run with it towards an, as yet, undefined totality. Frankenthaler’s art is one of incompleteness. Its signature is openness. It is not proscriptive, rather it’s a process, a reaching towards. There are the echoes of Rothko and Barnett Newman, of that Jewish mystical sensibility which permeated so much post-war American Abstract Expressionism. As in Rothko, there’s a sense of otherworldliness that goes beyond simply formal concerns. Though in Frankenthaler these states tend towards the joyful and the lyrical rather than dark introspection. As for many other modernists, accident played a big part in her process. A photograph in her studio on West End Avenue, New York, in 1957, shows her crouched over her canvas on the floor, a tube of paint in one hand, applying it with the fingers of the other. It’s a lyrical image. A beautiful young woman completely absorbed in the making of her art.

Born in 1928 to a wealthy, cultured and progressive Jewish family – her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge – unusually, for the period, Franthenthaler was encouraged to have a professional career and studied at the Dalton School under the muralist Rufino Tamayo and at Bennington College in Vermont. Pollock, Cubism and Ashile Gorky were all influences of her early mark-making. A five year romantic relationship with Clement Greenberg, then marriage to Robert Motherwell – they were known as the ‘golden couple’ – assured her a place at the high table of modernism in an era when American abstraction was largely seen as a male affair. This allowed her to develop a language of her own, with its liquid forms and dissolving edges, its challenging spatial and perceptual innovations that extended the boundaries of painting for future generations of women artists, allowing them the space to create a multiplicity of visual possibilities.

Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976 , installation view 2021 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London Photo: Lucy Dawkins, Courtesy Gagosian

Published in Doris Magazine

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