Helen Frankenthaler's Spaced Out Orbit (1973) on display at the Portland Art Museum
Helen Frankenthaler, one of the most important painters of the Twentieth Century has died at age 83
. I consider her be the most important artist of what her onetime paramour Clement Greenberg dubbed, "Post Painterly Abstraction." She was the inventor of the stained canvas technique that other artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland used to remove any separation between color and the canvas (for which they received more attention as Formalists). Crucially, she differed from those who followed her because she continuously used a poetic approach to abstraction that was often lyrically rooted to experiences or places. I see this as a strength since she makes the otherwise VERY MACHO movement much more varied than it is given credit. Arguably, her influence goes far beyond painting and it always exceeded gender.
As Frankenthaler once told it, "I was trying to get at something - I didn't know what until it was manifest." She prioritized intuitive experiences rather than a formal objective, exonerating her from the fate of ideologically brittle schools of painting that persisted throughout most of the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Initially, a student of Hans Hofmann and perhaps the only painter to successfully build upon Jackson Pollock's language it was Frankenthaler's poetic and experiential qualities that gave her works a sense of place rather than the "Formalists" who co-opted her stain technique for different results. In a way this makes her work more esoteric and singular than her male peers, yet still she persisted as they painted themselves into a corner with more narrow objectives. Somehow, being poetic was seen as a negative in her work when it was seen as a positive for her onetime husband Robert Motherwell. Arguably, she was the better lyrical poet, when he was more an illustrator of philosophies. I've considered her work the in the top tier of lyrical modern artists including Matisse, Kandinsky and Pollock... notably working with nature rather than a defiance of it that was common with male artists. You can see the descendants of Frankenthaler's approach in the works of Katharina Grosse
's painted installations, Lynda Benglis' sculpture and Pipilotti Rist or Jennifer Steinkamp's immersive video works... all of whom treat the experience of the body as a kind of thought (it's hardly the province of female artists but its different from James Turrell, Richard Sera or Robert Irwin's which is more monogenic). Experience of the body's senses as thought is idea that took a while to come around to and is still somewhat underdeveloped.
Deeper in history, as a couple from 1950-1955 Frankenthaler and Greenberg would tour the latest New York School exhibitions all the while debating the merits of the work. In 1955 Greenberg published his essay Amerian-Type Painting, which laid out his fully formed ideas on flatness, all over compositions and material as tastemaker on the ACCF
. In some ways Greenberg wanted to be like her, a highborn Jewish intellectual (too many just assume she was learning from him, but as a student of Hans Hofmann she knew more specific things about painting than he did). Simply, Greenberg came from more modest means and social background and she was his partner at the moment of his apotheosis when Jackson Pollock's preeminence was a matter of State's interest. It is no coincidence that she extended Pollock's legacy, she was right there shaping the discussion around his work. The two were close until Greenberg's death.
What's more, when most abstract artists allied with de Kooning, Frankenthaler took on the daunting intrinsic finality of Pollock's drips and found a way when no-one else could build upon his work with her stain technique. This was in an age when abstraction was trying to drain art of the kind of metaphor (such as brushstrokes connotation with labor) that fascist regimes had abused before and during WWII. Her contribution was significant, introducing more Eastern ideas that did not separate nature from experience or the properties of paint.
In terms of gender her attitudes are right in line with most female artists in the 21st century. Rather than putting her gender forefront her paintings were expected to speak for themselves and therefore would inherently reflect her. Her statement being that she was a painter first and foremost made her a 3rd generation feminist before the second generation had even fully germinated. Perhaps only in the 21st century can we appreciate this fully?
Portland has a special relationship to Frankenthaler because it is home to the Clement Greenberg Collection
. It is doubly telling because Frankenthaler's Spaced Out Orbit (on view at the Portland Art Museum) seems to be a commentary on her's and Greenberg's by then concluded romance but still inextricably tied relationship. When that painting appeared in her 1989 MoMA retrospective the lenders name was kept private... only when it entered PAM's collection in 2000 did I learn its true significance.
I have an even more personal relationship to the artist (whom I met several times) in that one of her mature abstractions graced the top floor of Illinois Wesleyan's Sheehan Library. Wesleyan is my Alma Mater and I spent hours contemplating her work. When I went to grad school my respect for her work remained undiminished. In a way she is my artistic Helen of Troy, farewell launcher of a thousand ships...