January 7, 2010: Helen Frankenthaler


Helen Frankenthaler, High Spirits, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 65 3/4x98 3/8 inches

Helen Frankenthaler, High Spirits, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 65 3/4x98 3/8 inches

Having exhausted myself amidst the crenellations and battlements of uptown I headed downtown to Chelsea to catch Piri's other two recommendations before the galleries closed and the openings opened. I went as directly as possible to Ameringer McEnery Yohe (and isn't that a crowd) to see Helen Frankenthaler (until January 23, 2010). It does seem a little odd for me to pay this much attention to established older artists, but at least it gives you, my wonderful readers, a chance to see what I think about a wider range of work.

I'm no expert on color field painters so I'm not really familiar with Helen Frankenthaler's work. In the conversational circles I travel it's impossible not to know who she is -- she's one of the few women you hear about from the days of High Modernism -- but her work doesn't get pulled out of storage as often as, say, Jasper Johns or Jackson Pollock. In fact I'm not sure if I've ever seen one of her paintings. Maybe if they had one up at MoMA once. Her breakthrough hit, Mountains and Sea, is frequently cited as the painting that launched a thousand paintings -- the story is Morris Louis and Ken Noland formulated their color field work after seeing it in New York -- but I don't think I've ever seen it in person.

The show at Ameringer is of work thirty years past that breakthrough moment -- all from the 1980s -- and it still finds Helen doing much the same thing: Staining rectangular canvas with her acrylics. It seems to be enough, although in these paintings she also blobs on thicker passages, contrasting nicely with the thin washes.

As with the Noland show I'd just seen, I didn't feel that any of these were great works of art, but again, compared to work like Richter's, they're masterpieces of probing intelligence. None of these paintings feels unstudied, hurried, or thoughtless. Each one expresses a great deal of decision-making, from the color choices to the compositions. All of Helen's considerable experience with picture-making is evident in each painting.

That said, nothing here looks really necessary, either. Especially not the rather unfortunate three-piece bronze screen, which looks as if it went through a garbage compactor before being left out in the rain for twenty years. A couple of smaller studies on paper don't help. This is probably a lesser showing from the artist.

Still, a lesser show from Helen Frankenthaler beats the best a lot of contemporary artists can muster.

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I will be reviewing this show in my own column (hopefully going online January 23 or 24) so I won't give my own opinion of this show here. I will say I find this a sensitive review & very welcome to have a somewhat younger critic looking at the work from a fresh perspective. The artist has never sold Mountains & Sea. For many years, it was on loan to the National Gallery in DC, and hung there with all the first-generation Good Old Boys. More recently, it's been traveling with the Jewish Museum's "Action/Abstraction" show. I can only hope it goes back to DC. MoMa, the Whitney & the Met all have Frankenthalers of varying quality. The Whitney practically never puts theirs on view, even though it's a lovely one from the '60s("Flood"). MoMA has had its very lively but pale "Jacob's Ladder" (from the '50s) on view in its permanent collection ever since the new building opened, but Ann Temkin, the newest chief curator, has been messing around with the permanent collection, so knows God how long it will be up. (It is reproduced, however, for August in the very handsome 2010 MoMA wall calendar entitled Abstraction; I only wish the reproduction were better quality). The Met usually hangs its Frankenthaler but at the moment I have no mental image of it & don't think it's my favorite. The really great Frankenthalers are mostly from the 50s & 60s, but you have to leave town or look in books to see them. What's that about a prophet being without honor in her own country? Even though the 50s & the 60s is I know like the Middle Ages for critics today I think it's still worthwhile trying to look at good paintings of this vintage because it helps to set standard for later work.

I like how you commented the brilliance of this show compared to the Richter show, of a guy who is trying to leave his mark by making the most paintings in a lifetime of any artist.

Frankenthaler cares about her painting, which is why she is up there, as people say, with the big guys. The reason, to me, why so many other artists don't get to travel up the ladder with the forerunners, is because they don't show the proper respect to those that have come before.

In a small way. It really is a big like the mafia. Show your respect, do good, and good will be done by you.

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