Thursday, August 17, 2017

Helen Frankenthaler. After Abstract Expressionism @ Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1959-60
I wonder how differently history would look upon Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings if they had been made by a man. Every piece in this extraordinary body of work from a leading American postwar artist is luscious and brilliant. But they are also a relatively little-known, relative that is to the oeuvres of Rothko, Pollock, DeKoonig, Kline, her husband Robert Motherwell, and all the other men whose paintings define the history of modern American art. My guess is that if Frankenthaler had been a man, her paintings would have been revered to the same, if not greater degree as those of her male counterparts. In many ways, her work is more intellectually interesting, more lyrical and sensuous than that of any of the men in her world.
Helen Frankenthaler, First Creatures, 1959
In his catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s landmark exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1960, Frank O’Hara, then curator at MoMA, wrote that her painting was filled with courage. Even in this small exhibition at Gagosian, it is possible to walk around and see the risks that she took. Something in the paintings looks like the visualization of an artist following her instinct at a time when formalism was on its way in and expressionism on its way out. That has to take courage. Like the other Abstract Expressionists (and the visual resemblance to De Koonig’s work is clear here) she painted from her instinct and intuition, in the search for a place to find freedom. The instantaneity is so present in these paintings that we witness her come alive on the canvas. Thus, the movement of her brush or fingers around the canvas is visible in the colour fields, and lines that occupy surprisingly busy canvases.
Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian
However, the paintings are also highly calculated. I was intrigued to see that the pools of colour on a number of the paintings began and ended very precisely, with no two colours touching each other. This precision is not the work of someone who is working solely through improvization and chance. The colours touch, and are always in conversation, but without overlapping, or drowning each other out. This has to reflect the control of a painter who uses enormous judgment in the architecture and organization of the painted canvas. Also, in keeping with this marriage of intuition and intellectual precision, I saw the works as somehow following the rhythms and patterns of dance. Not only because of the visibility of the body in motion, but because of the abstraction, the lines floating and cutting across empty swathes of canvas to suggest a body or a bird in flight. These trajectories are not mapped out by emotion or instinct, but again, are very consciously designed.

Helen Frankenthaler, After Abstract Expressionism 
Installation View @ Gagosian,
Italian Beach, 1960 on RHS
The film in the upstairs gallery is enlightening and should not be missed. There are conversations around a table with the who’s who of the New York art world—including Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler’s boyfriend at the time. Then the film moves to show her at work. Alone in her studio, or together with an assistant, we see her manipulating colour—often the same colour—to extract its multiple effects. The same colour can be dense and opaque, filled with light and iridescent, shadowy or confident. I want to say that she pulls these often conflicting characteristics out of each colour. Then we see her using different tools: fingers, sponges, spatulas, brushes, and squeegees of various kinds. We also see her working over a canvas from above, in Pollock style, but thinking and controlling in a way that Pollock’s process did not allow him to do. As one critic acknowledges, Frankenthaler’s work is great because she does the impossible: she takes Pollock’s style and process, and does something different. I would say that what results from her process enables the paintings to sit between pouring and smearing, between random and carefully measured reflections on paint and its expression of our relationship to the world.

Helen Frankenthaler, The Red Sea, 1959
Some of my favorites were the landscapes, reminding me of Clyfford Still's representations of the desert. But unlike Still’s paintings, the colours move from vivid primary colours to more muted tones, from the beaches to untitled landscapes. And reminiscent of some of Twombly’s greatest work, there is often as much unpainted canvas as there is colour. Again, like Twombly, every single area without paint is filled with something, whether it is the drip of colour escaping the instrument of application as it was carried across the canvas, or a consciously unfinished moment, there is no place on Frankenthaler’s canvases where nothing happens.


Images courtesy Gagosian

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