HELEN FRANKENTHALER

“I am an artist of paint, making discoveries”

In 1950, Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 – 2011), fresh out of Bennington College, was thrown by Clement Greenberg into the virile, competitive maelstrom of Abstract Expressionism in its prime years. Not only did the 25-year old show she could hold her own ground, within two years, she produced a breakthrough work, Mountains and Sea,that was held to be the first substantial picture in a style that grew out of the New York School, but broke new ground as well.

Although she had moved the debate forward, Frankenthaler was nevertheless constantly characterized in subordinate or retrospective terms. She was the designated “heir” to Jackson Pollock’s dripped and poured legacy and she was charged with maintaining the abstraction revolution, the irony of which, one imagines, was not lost on the young artist.

In the 1960s, Frankenthaler switched from oil paint to acrylics and pared her compositions down to a few broad, hard edged forms. These modifications of style and technique constituted more than an extension of Abstract Expressionism and Frankenthaler was credited with launching a new form of painting, called Color Field, which had roots in Abstract Expressionism (particularly Rothko and Newman) as all approved art did at the time, but was otherwise very unlike the action paintings of the previous generation. Soon after, critics identified Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland as Color Field acolytes.

Then after fulfilling two key positions in two major artistic cultures for over two decades, she abruptly falls out of art critical and historical writing, Although she was the same age as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Frankenthaler seemed to be of an older generation because of her involvement with Abstract Expressionism, which, by the 1960s, was the past. A similar fate befell Frank Stella, another painter with a high critical reputation who had discovered a way out of Abstract Expressionism without rejecting it. In the art world dominated by Pop and Minimalism, abstraction had come to seem old fashioned. The association with the New York School, which initially helped his career, became an albatross.

Not only was Frankenthaler’s art failing to attract critical attention, she also failed to draw attention to herself, providing the media with none of the drama of her predecessors—no suicides, no car crashes, no addictions, no black depressions—and she avoided the self-fashionings of the Pop artists, creating no media persona, generating no self-publicity, licensing no branded products. Instead of commodifying herself, Frankenthaler, continued to make discoveries through painting.

Random Observations:

Helen Frankenthaler was romantically involved with Clement Greenberg in the early 1950s. She was married to Robert Motherwell from 1958 -1971.

Known for her mural-sized, gestural oil paintings, Frankenthaler personally preferred small-scale media like watercolor and techniques of mechanical-reproduction like lithography as art practices.

She loved parties with dancing to loud music; she and Motherwell hosted legendary parties at their New York townhouse in the 1960s.

Since her death at age 81 in 2011, Helen Frankenthaler’s estate has partnered with gallerist Larry Gagosian to exhibit and promote the artist’s work. She was the subject of a 2011 exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea entitled Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959A second exhibition, Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color Paintings 1962-63 will be on view at Gagosian’s uptown location from 11 September – 14 October 2014.

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery will present an exhibition of Frankenthaler’s paintings, Giving up One’s Mark: Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s from 9 November 2014 – 15 February 2015.

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