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February 2021 Issue [Reviews]

The Artist Disappears

Helen Frankenthaler’s earthbound genius
Helen Frankenthaler, dressed as Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, at the Beaux Arts Ball, New York City, 1950 © Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Helen Frankenthaler, dressed as Pablo Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, at the Beaux Arts Ball, New York City, 1950 © Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images


The Artist Disappears

Helen Frankenthaler’s earthbound genius

Discussed in this essay:

Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, by Alexander Nemerov. Penguin Press. 288 pages. $28.

Imagine, if you will, that it’s the year 1990, and you are flipping through the magazine Art & Antiques. (Why you are doing this, I don’t know—maybe you’re an art collector? Just imagine it.) You come across a photograph of a middle-aged white woman in a lemon-yellow sweater and low wedges. She’s perched inside some kind of gigantic wheeled frame, dark eyes cast to the side, laughing at a private joke. Cans of paint, buckets, and brushes, the tools of her trade, are organized on shelves beside her. She seems successful and, what’s more, adjusted to success—happy, even carefree. On the floor is a work in progress, soupy reddish paint dotted with black specks. It vaguely resembles an exploded watermelon. “Every canvas is a journey all its own,” the text declares.

Helen Frankenthaler has long held the highest rank in contemporary painting. Mountains and Sea, painted when she was barely into her twenties, is credited with introducing the lyrical use of color into abstract expressionism. . . . Although Frankenthaler leads a calm, ordered life, she embraces risks and adventure in her art . . . “I’ve explored a variety of directions and themes over the years. But I think in all my painting you can see the signature of one artist, the work of one wrist.”

Then the kicker:

And on that immensely talented wrist, Helen Frankenthaler has chosen to wear a Rolex.

You have not come across a review of Frankenthaler’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. You have instead come across America’s “most prominent living female artist” (according to The New York Times Magazine) shilling for a wristwatch. The Rolex ad was in no way subversive or ironic. It wasn’t Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí goofing around on Braniff International Airways. Frankenthaler was passion, feeling, formalism. She didn’t do subversion.

To the readers of Art & Antiques, Frankenthaler would have been familiar, if old-fashioned—similar to Rolex itself. Decades after Pop and postmodernism had surpassed Abstract Expressionism and color-field painting, she was still making vibrant, meditative abstract paintings. She still believed, as the curator Helen Molesworth has said, “in the purity of art.” So what happened? How did she wind up using that art as a backdrop for a luxury product? At the time, the gallerist André Emmerich was selling Frankenthaler’s paintings for an average of $120,000 apiece—hardly the $3.9 million that the Palm Springs Art Museum got last year when it deaccessioned Carousel, but enough. Still, even artists whose work goes well with the drapes aren’t always good at managing their accounts. And what about that copy, which strangely references “the work of one wrist,” even though in interviews Frankenthaler always said that easel painters use their wrists, whereas she, who worked on the floor, used her shoulder—who wrote it? Did Frankenthaler regret doing the ad, or would she have done it again?

A deep dive into the Rolex ad is missing from Alexander Nemerov’s new biography, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York. Nemerov, the chair of the art and art history department at Stanford University, confines himself to the period of Frankenthaler’s youth. His book opens in 1950 with a costume party where Frankenthaler, then unknown in the art world, is dressed as Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror, and ends with her 1960 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, when she was thirty-one years old. This was a dazzlingly productive era with obvious appeal for the scholar and reader. It was the decade in which Frankenthaler pioneered a daring and influential process of “soaking” canvases with diluted paint poured directly from a can, combining these pools of color with loose drawings that remained tethered to reality even as they eschewed representation. She moved downtown; dated the neurotic, insecure critic Clement Greenberg; married the brooding, tragic painter Robert Motherwell; made pilgrimages to the Prado and the caves of Lascaux and Altamira; became an orphan and a stepmother; and moved uptown again.

It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the young Frankenthaler. She hadn’t yet moved all the way up to Darien, Connecticut, or married Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., an investment banker who served in the Ford, Kennedy, and Johnson Administrations. She hadn’t yet been called “intellectually lazy” by Artforum, or warned that she “must be held accountable” for the “moral bankruptcy” on display in a show of works on paper. She hadn’t yet taken the occasion of the Mapplethorpe and Serrano controversies to publish an op-ed explaining that while their works shouldn’t be censored, she would have preferred that the National Endowment for the Arts—she served on its advisory council—had not funded them in the first place. Later in life Frankenthaler seemed to enjoy flaunting a kind of patrician hauteur, wearing pearls on Charlie Rose and business casual on CBS Sunday Morning and decorating her townhouse with floral upholstery and pistachio walls. On one of them hung a photograph of her with Ronald Reagan. “Some of my friends criticized me for going to the White House,” she told the Times Magazine, “but it was a great party.” (Lest you assume that she was paying attention to politics, recall the time she met the Cheneys. “Really smart, Lynne Cheney,” Frankenthaler said. “But tell me, her husband, what does he do?”) She longed for the days when the art world had been the province of “loftier minds, relatively unloaded with politics, fashion and chic.” Minds were to be free, art was to be pure, but wrists, it seems, were fine to weigh down with a $7,000 Oyster Perpetual Lady-Datejust.

Perhaps the discourse of genius always necessitates a blinkered approach, in this case a focus on the early period of radical aesthetic experimentation at the expense of the complications and compromises of maturity. Fierce Poise covers the same period as Mary Gabriel’s magisterial Ninth Street Women, and many beats will be familiar to readers of that book. But where Gabriel was dishy, Nemerov is ecstatic, even worshipful. His book is informative and erudite, but his goal is not so much to communicate the facts of Frankenthaler’s life as to persuade the reader of her spiritual greatness. “Helen seemed to speak on behalf of some energy in the world, to be the representative of a force that occasionally alights in all of us but that had chosen to live within her.” He philosophizes on the meaning of wind, the nature of human freedom. As in his recent book on the poet Howard Nemerov (his father) and the photographer Diane Arbus (his aunt), his point of view is personal. “I knew I would need to come near, to dare closeness,” he writes of his decision to refer to Frankenthaler by her first name. Although he had the idea to write about Helen years ago, he had first to recover from his education in postmodernism, which had emphasized “anger and self-recrimination” at the expense of “pleasure and joy and possibility”: “I was afraid, unwilling and unable to acknowledge the depths her paintings stirred in me, the person her art patiently waited for me to become.”

Yes, Nemerov writes, Frankenthaler hung in her kitchen a small painting of a “crucifix of dollar bills . . . as a reminder of the sacrifices she made for sales,” but “that was later, in the 1970s.” His story predates any such corruption. His Frankenthaler is an artist whose paintings were “so effectively dreamed” that they “strongly resisted becoming mere merchandise and status symbols in the hands of a buyer.” They are intensely personal and private worlds that transcend the personal and private so that, as Frank O’Hara put it, “the artist disappears and we have a fact of experience.”

Left: Mountains and Sea, 1952, by Helen Frankenthaler © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York City, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Right: Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, New York City, 1957 © Burt Glinn/Magnum

“I was a special child, and I felt myself to be,” Frankenthaler once said. “All my infancy and childhood, my parents treated me this way, I had the genes . . . intelligence . . . talent . . . the ‘gift.’ ” The third daughter of a wealthy German-Jewish family, she was doted on by her father, a New York State Supreme Court Justice. He bought her a palette charm from Tiffany’s, and a real one in Atlantic City. Under the watchful eye of the nanny, she drew a line in chalk from the statue of Adonis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 82nd and Fifth, to her family’s doorman building, at 74th and Park. She grew up with a sense of belonging, an inalienable belief in her right to create.

As a student at Dalton, an elite Manhattan prep school, Frankenthaler studied with the muralist and painter Rufino Tamayo. At Bennington she studied with Paul Feeley, wrote brazenly assured art criticism, and once, while in New York City for the weekend, talked her way into meeting Marlon Brando backstage. While her sisters—Mount Holyoke and Vassar girls—were getting married and raising children, she was mixing colors. She was the youngest painter in the fabled Ninth Street Show, which introduced Abstract Expressionism to the world, and her canvas was the biggest. When she cold-called Clement Greenberg to invite him to an exhibition of work by Bennington alumni, he responded that he would only come if there were drinks. It was 1950, of course there were drinks. Greenberg came; Greenberg drank; Greenberg insulted Frankenthaler’s painting, a Cubist pastiche. The two of them dated for the next five years.

Dating Greenberg—the elder statesman of flatness, the author of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” the wounded intellectual who still resented that his parents hadn’t encouraged him to be an artist, or even (gasp) saved his childhood doodles—was a big deal for a young painter. Frankenthaler found herself at the center of the Cedar Tavern set, having dinner with the de Koonings and editors of the Partisan Review, and visiting Jackson Pollock’s studio on Long Island. According to Nemerov, Frankenthaler enjoyed the access but was bothered by a sense that life with Greenberg was a “short-cut”; “the doors that he opened inspired Helen’s wish to explore life on her own.” True, being Greenberg’s girlfriend meant that he wouldn’t write about her. It also meant that he would take Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis to her studio when she was out, and after they copied her technique of pouring paint directly onto the canvas, write about them. But this obviously gendered betrayal didn’t bother Frankenthaler—perhaps because Louis acknowledged the debt, perhaps because she took it as a compliment. As Molesworth has said, Frankenthaler didn’t see herself as “maligned or wronged by history,” but as “someone who helped make history.”

The story of that first pour has been often told. It was the autumn of 1952. Frankenthaler had already made the jazzy, yellow Ed Winston’s Tropical Gardens and the bright, serene Provincetown Bay, which earned the laconic approval of Hans Hofmann (“This works”). On her side of a studio on West 23rd Street, she laid a canvas on the floor, as Pollock had done, and skipped the application of primer, as Pollock had done. A recent trip to Nova Scotia was on her mind, and, she later said, “in her arms.” She diluted oil paint until it was thin and watery. “She made a few charcoal lines clustering in the center of the big sheet,” Nemerov writes.

The lines suggested forms but only as an armature for what followed. Then she laid on the turpentine-thinned colors, blue and pink and salmon and red and sea-foam green, watching as they pooled and stained like her mother’s nail polish had done in the bathroom sink many years earlier. . . . There seemed to be no form, no order. But Helen felt each element was poised on a fragile edge of clarity, even of flaring neatness, like a wave risen to perfection at the moment before it spends its energy and falls apart.

Pollock’s splatter formed a bristling web of ropey, all-over action that clung to a picture’s surface. Frankenthaler’s paint seeped across the canvas and was absorbed into it, creating an entirely different effect—more expansive, more contemplative, more feminine. (As for the choreography itself, she had no interest in drips: “It’s a kind of boring accident to me, a drip,” she said. “Drips are drips.”) Mountains and Sea was featured in Frankenthaler’s solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, but nobody bought it. Nobody bought anything from that show. The Times called the works “sweet and unambitious.” This could have been a way of dismissing Frankenthaler as a woman, though gender wasn’t always coded this way—around the same time, the Times celebrated Grace Hartigan’s “euphoric transformations of visual sights.” (Hartigan was the first of her generation of Abstract Expressionists, male or female, whose work Alfred Barr acquired for MoMA.) The criticism seems to have had more to do with some sense that Frankenthaler’s work was too pretty, too decorative, not difficult—that it was slight, and that she hadn’t worked hard enough to make it, hadn’t sweated or suffered for it.

Abstract or nonrepresentational art seems to conjure special anxieties about work. If the work seems too easy (if, say, a child could do it), we expect a certain degree of psychological angst, emotional struggle. If an artist does not suffer, she seems to have gotten away with something; in that case, the work’s financial value may reflect the desire of the buyer to be in on the joke. Frankenthaler’s studiomate said that she hadn’t primed the canvas because she was being “lazy.” Hartigan said later that Frankenthaler’s paintings had the appearance of having been done “between cocktails and dinner.” Was she a great artist, or merely, as Joan Mitchell once sniffed, “that tampon painter,” soaking the canvas with secretions, doing too little and revealing too much?

The poet Barbara Guest described Frankenthaler’s paintings as “landscapes of the interior.” Frankenthaler herself said, “My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates and not nature per se, but a feeling. And the feeling of an order that is more associated with nature.”

The feeling of a Frankenthaler is often calm, openness, possibility. “It is all apparent ease and nonchalance,” Nemerov writes of Mountains and Sea. “There is no turbulence, none of the struggle that other Tibor de Nagy painters equated with authenticity.” As Eleanor Munro wrote in Originals: American Women Artists,

While Frankenthaler is Pollock’s heir in the technical sense, she did not inherit the First Generation’s sense of sublime excess, infernal spinning energy, linear turmoil, psychic contradiction and oncoming doom.

What she got from Pollock, Frankenthaler later said, was “a certain attitude that was probably in me already, but I hadn’t used it yet. And that was sort of, let ’er rip. Go free. You have the wherewithal. Just go. Run with it. Try it. Fool around.”

If she was maligned for not being “ambitious” enough, that may be because the nature of her work was not properly understood. Her process presented a paradox: on the one hand, nothing could be easier than spilling paint; on the other, it was physically demanding and left very little room for error. Without primer, pigment saturates the canvas and cannot be scraped off. Every drop is permanent, binding to the weave of the fabric. The artist who works this way must be open to the unexpected and serendipitous as well as confident in her ability to incorporate whatever happens into the composition. Frankenthaler talked about using her shoulder, but really she used her entire body—walking over the canvas, kneeling down, bending over, getting up again, thrusting this way and that, executing and modifying the vision, the plan. While Hofmann, with whom Frankenthaler studied in Provincetown one summer, talked about the “push-pull” of color on the eye, Frankenthaler literally pushed and pulled pigment. (The term action painting, whatever its flaws, points at how abstraction is an art of verbs. The gerunds pile up, whether you’re describing the making or the finished work: sweeping, swirling, and so forth.) The painter Amy Sillman has written that Frankenthaler was “in an incredible athletic decision-making process while working.” The children’s book about her life is titled Dancing Through Fields of Color, which is fine so long as you understand that a dancer is someone whose legs are made of iron and whose shoes are filled with blood when she gets offstage.

Once the paint was down, Frankenthaler used brushes, sponges, mops, and her hands to move it around and layer it, creating delicate textures and patches of light and dark that complement and repudiate one another. You can see how it went in the documentary American Art in the 1960s. In a cavernous studio, wearing striped trousers and a white collared blouse, she bends down nearly horizontally, reaching so far that she seems to be briefly lying on the wet canvas, and pushes a fat sponge across a watery, mauve pond. By the end of the scene, her clothes are wrecked and she is relaxing with what appears to be a snifter of brandy. I can’t begin to guess whether she wore this outfit just for the cameras or she was in the habit of destroying nice clothing every time she made a painting. She is not, as far as I can tell, wearing a watch.

Where the eye travels deep into a Rothko or Newman, it tends to hover across, roam around the surface of a Frankenthaler. Reproductions of her works from this period make them appear flat and mute. In person, you can see how the layers float on top of one another, how each splotch is dynamic, quivering with dried liquidity. An art that is supposed to be about flatness has surprising depths. Nemerov makes this material quality metaphysical, writing that Frankenthaler’s gift was to create “paintings as surprising and glorious as life itself, paintings that enshrine the living feeling of days like no one else’s do.” I take him to be saying that these paintings make him feel something coming alive, joyfully, within himself. He describes her work as intimate and eternal, offering no term that might mediate between the poles of inscrutable interiority and mystical cosmos. He treats the encounter between painting and viewer as something sacred, and the plane on which so much of mundane human life actually transpires doesn’t hold his interest—the plane of the prosaic, the plane of compromise and commerce, the plane of the perpetual datejust.

Before the Caves, 1958, by Helen Frankenthaler © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/ Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum, California

Before the Caves, 1958, by Helen Frankenthaler © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/ Artists Rights Society, New York City. Courtesy Berkeley Art Museum, California

When Frankenthaler was visiting Spain in 1953, her friend Sonya Rudikoff wrote to her and asked for her impressions of political life under Franco. She did not answer the question. “She had more important things on her mind,” Nemerov explains. “Politics was never her passion.” A few years later, she marveled at the frenzied mood around the Eisenhower-Stevenson election. “Everyone I’ve talked to has been terribly excited and frightened,” she wrote. “There’s a real minute-to-minute crisis atmosphere and that’s all anyone’s talking or reading about.” Her answer was to paint Eden, which looks like the inside of a room where a garden is growing on the walls and a bright red hand is signaling stop. Cold War anxiety, the death of Stalin—she was not unaware of world events, but her reality, Nemerov writes, was art, and the world of “private human value.”

Those who have survived the past four years in America may be familiar with the crushing, all-consuming crudity of the news and the yearning for a room, or a life, away from it. I strongly agree with Nemerov that one power of art is to “convey the sense of being alive at a certain time.” But Nemerov does not rest there. Frankenthaler is, improbably, “a chronicler of the fifties, a guide to its fleeting emotions,” “a Shakespeare of the Eisenhower era.” What exactly those emotions were, or what insights into prevailing cultural moods she provided, he does not say. How one can be the apolitical chronicler of a politically anxious decade is mysterious; there is a straw man at work here, or a fantasy, an idea of politics as something base which allows Nemerov to preserve the idea of art as a thing apart, a spiritual encounter between object and viewer. This encounter yields readings that are suggestive but fuzzy. When Nemerov asserts that a painting “implies a melting and vulnerable softness as of feelings so delicate they can only be stated in whispers,” or is like “a diary left open whose words yet cannot be read,” it is difficult to either disagree or agree, since the point is not to interpret so much as to register his own subjective state or impression. One can see how this approach would work well in a classroom, where the goal is to excite and inspire, but I often could not see through the scrim of Nemerov’s language to the art it was purporting to describe.

When Frankenthaler was preparing for her first solo exhibition, Hartigan wrote in her diary that it was “easy for Helen to be the fairy princess. She hasn’t seen the dragon yet.” Hartigan was referring to the fact that Frankenthaler had not yet had to produce a large number of paintings on deadline, but the language is loaded, suggesting a charmed existence. Frankenthaler’s father died of cancer when she was eleven, and her adolescence was a torment of grief and migraines. She could be ebullient, but she experienced periods of depression throughout her life. Her mother, who had Parkinson’s, committed suicide at the age of fifty-nine by throwing herself out a window. If darkness is not characteristic of Frankenthaler’s art, that seems to have something to do with her ability to take refuge in her work, not as a place to process life but as a separate realm coequal with life. As Motherwell said,

An artistic personality and a life personality often have no connection. In Helen’s case, the controlling part of her is not part of the artistic personality. Her lyricism as an artist comes from a great personal inner liberation.

The task of the biographer is to connect these two personalities. Nemerov settles on the useful and commonsense formula of “only she could have made this work”—in other words, you can’t point to a blot of color and draw a vulgar correspondence to a life event, but you can trust that the whole experience informed every aesthetic choice.

Since only Helen could have painted Mountains and Sea, it must be equally true that only Helen could have painted Hybrid Vigor (1973) or Soho Dreams (1987) or the dozens of lithograph and woodblock prints that she made from the Sixties until her death in 2011. Women continue to exist after the age of thirty, and artists continue to make art after their period of self-formation—art that only they can make. If Helen Frankenthaler were a character in a novel, she would just be getting interesting around the time that Fierce Poise ends. What does it feel like to be an avant-garde artist surpassed by the next wave, to find yourself at once immensely successful and out of step? How do success, fame, and money change what you do and who you are? How did she wield power at the NEA? What is middle age for a woman? What was up with that Rolex ad?

One might expect the coda to offer some context. Instead, Nemerov concludes with several rhapsodic pages on Frankenthaler’s beauty. We are told that she was always beautiful, but got more beautiful with age—physically, yes, but she also had the beauty of “a radiant soul.” One is left to assume that Nemerov has limited himself to the Fifties because he doesn’t think very highly of what came after, but he doesn’t own up to that—his harshest comment (that in the Seventies, Frankenthaler “became too cozy with the businessmen who bought her paintings and accordingly lost something of her gift”) is put in someone else’s mouth. In the end, Fierce Poise is less a biography than a work of ekphrasis that relies on an idealized vessel. It is criticism as communion. I’m left thinking of how Amy Sillman described Frankenthaler as “voguing”: dancing through fields of color, sure, but also rolling around, luxuriating in everything we have down here on earth: the materiality of color, the money in the bank.

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