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

Posted: February 13, 2018 in Uncategorized

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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.

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Helen Frankenthaler with sculptor David Smith

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Helen Frankenthaler
Life Magazine
1956

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Comments
  1. Elizabeth Izampuye says:

    It’s interesting to see how much her paintings contrast with Pollock’s. Their style is similar at first glance, as both paintings appear to just be random splatters of paint on paper with unpredictable direction and no clear image. However, when I look closely at Helen’s paintings for some reason I get this calm feeling. She induces a sort of femininity in her paintings that bring about a sense of gentleness and peace: from the pastel colors to the more draw out (instead of splattered) lines. Even though her paintings are not clear in what they are supposed to be, the intent of them is. She sort of tries to paint her feelings. Whereas Pollock purposefully made paintings he new were not good, but were remarkable enough to be notice, because of how bad and nonsensical they were. Even though Helen is an abstract painter, she does not paint with the intent of being so out of the ordinary, that people get angry with her. Her paintings are somewhat easier to grasp than Pollock’s. One website I found about her said that even art critics such as Clement Greenberg felt her paintings were the “next big thing” in American art. The site said her paintings “celebrated the joys of pure color and gave an entirely new look and feel to the surface of the canvas,” which I could not find through Pollock’s paintings.

    • If you scroll back through the blog posts, you’ll find a picture of Greenberg and Frankenthaler together on the beach, along with Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, who was also an abstract painter. Because so much hyper-masculine energy and language floated around The New York School, it’s easy to forget that women were a part of the group, and that the ‘boys network’ considered them full and active members. This becomes a bit more problematic when you discover Krasner put her own career on hold for decades in order to keep Pollock sober and productive, a battle she finally lost when he drove his car into a tree in 1954. It was only then she felt free to take up her own work again. In any case, this community of painters was far more diverse and complex than most people imagine. While Greenberg helps to create it, his eventual dogmatism restricted the general view of who did what in American abstract painting. Here, you might consult my post “Greenburge Gets Old.” There you’ll see a link to Serge Guilbault’s book on the whitewashing of 20th-century American art.

      As for Frankenthaler herself, yes, she brings a far more gentle touch to the wild splashing and spattering of Pollock. While I would necessarily agree that he aimed at or succeeded in producing anything ugly, there is still a notoriously male energy to his work. Meanwhile, there seems to be something more maternal and tender in the way Frankthaler addresses her canvas. Her touch is more gradual. And she has a far greater investment in color. This is one reason Greenberg thought she was the next big thing, as the group of painters he championed after the Abstract Expressionist was the Washington School, know for the “color fields” they created.

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