Helen Frankenthaler as Anti-Anti-Hero? – Abstract Painting In A Feminine Mode

Posted: February 25, 2017 in Uncategorized


Helen Frankenthaler (obituary)
Abstract expressionist artist associated with the colour field movement

Michael McNay
The Guardian, Wednesday 28 December 2011

At the age of 23 Helen Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea (1952), an abstraction that freed up the logjam in postwar American art following the first sensational burst of creative activity by the abstract expressionists. It looks, in reproduction, like a gently evocative watercolour with a series of blue, green and red stains fading into pink, and a small, glowing yellow ochre passage coalescing into the hint of landscape that the title suggests. In fact Frankenthaler, who has died aged 83, had just returned from a holiday in Nova Scotia to her studio in New York, and nailed a canvas about 7ft high and 10ft wide to the floor and poured oil colour on to the surface.

The method and the scale of it was, of course, borrowed from Jackson Pollock’s procedure, but it was totally devoid of Pollock’s angst-ridden search for the sublime. Frankenthaler said later that, fresh from the north Atlantic, she painted from the memories absorbed into not only her mind but her wrists as well. Painting became once again, as in many of its best periods, an instinctive coalition of hand and eye and controlling intelligence.

(read more)


Helen Frankenthaler with sculptor David Smith


Helen Frankenthaler
Life Magazine

  1. Joseph Blanton says:

    I like the term anti-anti-hero. Pollack’s drive to make the worst, the meaningless, the most criminal art might appeal to the disillusioned existentialists, but admiring his art from that perspective is a pretty hard swallow. I think a lot of people like art that embodies the pretty, the personal, or the emotional, so that they can see how much the artist cared about making the piece. It sounds like that was one of the points of Frankenthaler’s work. By drawing on her experiences, she achieved a strong connection with her work as she got her hands dirty and worked extremely intimately with her canvas on the floor and paint from the bucket. I wonder about the plight of the public surrounding her work. The quote, “One of the best descriptions of the effect of Frankenthaler’s work after that extraordinary canvas of 1952 was the Observer critic Nigel Gosling’s review of an exhibition in May 1964…” indicates it might have taken the ~10yrs for the community to get over their befuddlement and appreciate her work for what it is.

    • I don’t know much about the reception of Hellen Frankenthaler’s reception. I know she eventually achieved a very high reputation, as her presence on popular magazine covers indicates. I’m sure there was initial confusion over her work, amongst the masses and also amongst those in the know, though probably for different reasons. The masses might have been confused by Frankenthaler’s unabashed non-represenational work, something many persons still can’t handle. Meanwhile, the ‘experts’ were probably put off by Frankthaler’s unabashed femininity. It’s no small matter that Frankenthaler was a woman, as Western art history has been egregiously sexist – something about which we’ll read when we get to Linda Nochlin. If Action Painting, as Rosenberg presented it, was all about the macho rebellious gesture, Frankenthaler was simply not playing that game. Her touch was delicate and intimate. It could seem as if the sacrifice she made was that of sacrificing sacrifice itself. To his credit, Greenberg, whom many persons considered to be an intolerant and overbearing asshole, was largely responsible for bringing Frankenthaler to the forefront of the art world. However, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, did not enjoy similar recognition. She largely abandoned her career as a painter in order to keep her husband under control. She only returned to her artistic pursuits after his death, in 1956, in an automobile accident.

      • Joseph Blanton says:

        Ah right, the gender aspect was something I did not consider at all. A women creating art that makes us uncomfortable, goes against the current trend, and is non-representational? Better find some content in her work so that we can easily digest it, as Sontag might say. I think I balked on your feminism question because I hesitate to label people that today, let alone take into account the history of all these “waves” of feminism. I think I can differentiate between constructive and destructive feminism, but I am still hesitant about the issue.

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