Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Minor Appreciation of Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler has died, and though I can't say that I knew she was still alive, or that I was one of her more ardent fans, the news still comes as something of a disappointment. Great art lives on forever, and when you don't think about how it's made, it's always in the back of your mind, waiting to be recalled. But when the artist dies and the obits start to trickle in, it's a grim reminder that great art lives forever, but at some point it stops being born.

Buzzards Bay, 1959
Anyway, the truth of it is that I don't know anything about Frankenthaler as a person. This isn't an obituary. All there is for me is the simple fact of her paintings and prints - the soft washes of color, the curlicuing lines, the interlocking prisms of paint. Like many of her contemporaries, there is an exquisite sense of balance in all of her work. Her choice in color and her arrangement of space produce an equanimity that is alluring; like a great Rothko or Pollock, I could stand in front of one of her paintings all day.
Mountains and Sea, 1952
 I'm sure much will be made of her methods, which largely involved pouring paint directly onto the canvas and manipulating it from there. People will talk about her as the realization of known dogmatist Clement Greenberg's theory of what painting should be - pure abstraction, unmediated by even a paintbrush (their relationship, early in her career, will certainly force that discussion). And yet, unlike her peers and fellow post-painterly abstractionists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, there is nothing cold or overly-cogitative about her work.  Everything looks and feels organic, like she's created primitive (futuristic?) topographical maps or erased and rearranged Cezanne landscapes. The way the patches bleed together, the comingling of colors and edgeless forms...Frankenthaler recreates the way we see nature, abstracting it along the way.

This is undoubtedly an oversimplified way to look at her art - maybe she was happy to be a part of Greenberg's canon, or wanted make a profound intellectual mark on modern art. That's ok. I'll leave the hardcore analysis of her place in art history (as a woman and otherwise), and the dissection of her technique to the professional critics. She made some beautiful paintings - what more can you ask for?
Book of Clouds, 2007

1 comment:

  1. I am surprised they did not yell at you for taking these photos! Love buzzards bay...