Frankenthaler Never Said Pink

Frankenthaler Never Said Pink

Helen Frankenthaler’s work was at times labelled decorative or sentimental in her lifetime, but demand for pieces by the leading Abstract Expressionist has rarely been greater
Helen Frankenthaler’s work was at times labelled decorative or sentimental in her lifetime, but demand for pieces by the leading Abstract Expressionist has rarely been greater

A savage historic critique of a canonical artist is always instructive about the ebb and flow of artistic reputation. In the January 1985 edition of Artforum, the critic John Yau reviewed a show of works on paper by Helen Frankenthaler at the André Emmerich Gallery in New York. For three decades, Frankenthaler, born in 1928 in New York City, had been a key figure in US art: a leading light in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism, a pioneer of the “soak-stain” technique – the acknowledged catalyst for colour field painting – and the subject of numerous museum shows.

Yau’s review appeared a month ahead of a retrospective of her works on paper at the Guggenheim in New York. He argued that, during the mid-1970s, “Frankenthaler started resting on her laurels.” She had become “intellectually lazy, content to go over old ground” and “smugly satisfied to recycle a stock set of techniques, methods, and ways of phrasing visual incident”, he suggested.

Helen Frankenthaler, Essence Mulberry, 1969, a woodcut print on paper made with master printer Kenneth Tyler. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York.

It is difficult to square this idea of a complacent artist on autopilot with any experience of a Frankenthaler work on paper from the period that Yau attacks: Essence Mulberry, a woodcut made in 1977 with the master printer Kenneth Tyler, is evocative of the fields of solid colour with which she was then filling her paintings. The work was shown alongside test prints in the 2021 exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. In one of 65 proofs leading up to the final work were visible notes from Frankenthaler to her collaborators: to seek a “nuance difference” she spots in the proof. “So try,” she writes. “But NO schmaltz pliz!” (sic)

This avoidance of schmaltz preoccupied Frankenthaler across her career. “Imagine the lifelong dance required for a woman artist of that generation who wanted to engage beauty and what had been called the ‘decorative’,” says Katy Siegel, the editor of the book The Heroine Paint: After Frankenthaler and the curator of the related exhibition Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler, held at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University the same year. The book and show were intended as a speculative exercise: “What if you started a history of post-war art and you didn’t start with Pollock as the font, as the DNA, but you started with Frankenthaler?” Siegel says. Of course, Pollock and Willem de Kooning’s reputations have continued unfairly to dwarf that of Frankenthaler, and fellow women abstractionists such as Joan Mitchell, ever since the 1950s.

“The avoidance of schmaltz preoccupied Frankenthaler across her career”

Siegel compares Frankenthaler’s “decorative” dilemma with that of Marie Laurencin, the French avant-garde painter. Laurencin inspired Frankenthaler’s Hommage à M.L., 1962, with its stains of blue and peach that Frankenthaler called “sort of boudoir pastels... colour I usually avoid like the plague”. As Siegel says, “She was actively recognising the appeal of pure colour and a colour that had been coded as feminine or female. But then she was an incredibly tough person, and rigorous.” Siegel recalls discussing Giant Step, 1975, in the Rose Art Museum show with Frankenthaler’s longtime assistant Maureen St Onge. “I said: ‘We have to get that beautiful pink painting.’ And Maureen said: ‘[Frankenthaler] never said pink.’ It was ‘mauve’, even though it’s just clearly pink. There’s a sensitivity to colour of course, but also a wish not to go into that schmaltz, not to make a Barbie painting. So how do you engage the feminine, the decorative, all of those disregarded genres without tipping over into something that will be cheesy or completely disregarded?”

American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1928 - 2011) at work on a large canvas, 1969. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)

This was one of several risks that Frankenthaler absorbed into her process. Speaking to EA Carmean, the curator of her show in Fort Worth in 1989, Frankenthaler echoed statements by Matisse on pain and art – a perennial inspiration and the subject of another tribute, Hommage à H.M., 1971 – in describing the journey of making a work: “Once you are beyond the pain and effort, finally there is something uplifting and pleasing in what you are being given.” The poet Frank O’Hara captured this in his response to Mother Goose Melody, 1959, a “superb” painting, he wrote, that “[does] not fail to refer to emotional enthusiasms which are real and likeable”.

Then, there is the tightrope walk of the soak-stain. The first painting using this method was Mountains and Sea, 1952, a genuinely pivotal work in art history. Over a loose, elegant charcoal drawing, working in the round on a raw, unprimed canvas on the studio floor, she poured thinned paint to form diaphanous planes across the surface. “When you’re rolling out a pour,” Siegel says, “it’s either going to work or it’s not in that one moment... It’s much harder to pull back and correct.”

The artist Amy Sillman was sceptical about Frankenthaler’s painting for decades before seeing Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959 at New York’s Gagosian gallery in 2013. “I just completely did a 180; an about-face,” she says. In a coruscating short essay for The heroine Paint, Sillman wrote that, in being “not very controlled... not micromanaged” and “determined by procedures set out in advance”, Frankenthaler’s early works feel “related to the so-called conceptual painting of today”.

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, the first work to use the artist’s soak-stain technique, which involved using paint thinner to give oil paint the consistency of watercolours. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York.

Asked which of the paintings best reflects this leap across time, Sillman cites Frankenthaler’s Scene with Nude, 1952. “It is clearly a crotch and legs and boobs, it’s kind of Courbet’s Origin of the World [1866],” she says. “It’s a very permissive, libertarian way of indicating the figure, and pulling back from it. I was interested in the ambivalence between abstraction and figuration.” In Scene with Nude, Sillman suggests, Frankenthaler “is getting rid of a certain kind of figuration and easel painting, but there’s still clearly a woman’s body painted from a very woman’s position”. Frankenthaler’s 1950s paintings, which Sillman describes as “all drawing”, manage to be “out of time or asynchronous”, she argues. “Sometimes the protagonist of an older thing – though they’re freighted with a certain kind of allegiance to a discourse – is so damn good at it, and so free within it, that they’re breaking new ground at the same time as they’re embodying it.”

“Just as artists are gaining new enthusiasm for Frankenthaler, so her reputation in the market and in institutions is growing.”

Just as artists are gaining new enthusiasm for Frankenthaler, so her reputation in the market and in institutions is growing. Prominent among a host of recent museum shows was the 2019 display at London’s Tate Modern of five paintings, including a gift to Tate from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation: the painting Vessel, 1961. Gagosian has now staged several exhibitions in collaboration with the Foundation and their relationship has been “organised to build an ironclad reputation for the artist and to build a market that has grown in a way that feels organic and full of potential, rather than very staccato”, says Ottilie Windsor, the senior director of private sales for Sotheby’s in London. Prices for Frankenthaler’s works have “risen with consistency, certainly over the last 10 years”, she says.

Helen Frankenthaler in 1964, photographed by Alexander Liberman (1912–99). Photo: Alexander Liberman photography archive. Series I. Artists and personalities, circa 1925–95. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

As is often the case, collectors’ taste and critical estimation are not in sync. “The buying market prefers the 1970s works, when the canvas becomes much fuller with colour, with far fewer areas of unpainted surface and where the colours are less muddied by overlaps [as in the 1950s works], and crisper and brighter,” says Windsor. Indeed, eight of the top 10 prices at auction for Frankenthaler were achieved for 1970s paintings, the highest being $7,895,300 with fees for Royal Fireworks, 1975, at Sotheby’s New York in 2020. Notably, that is significantly less than one might expect to pay for a work by her male peers. Collectors, Windsor says, tend to be focused on modern American painting rather than in the connections between historic abstraction and its contemporary resonances, though some collectors are buying Frankenthaler and other women Abstract painters beyond the US.

It is clear, then, that Frankenthaler is as buoyant in conversations in artists’ studios, museums and salerooms as she has ever been. From the very start, her work was revolutionary, so much so that her colour field peer Morris Louis famously said: “She was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” Siegel judiciously points out that Louis casts her as “a waystation. She’s a midwife. And what’s possible is him [Louis], of course – as if that’s the event.”

But Frankenthaler has the last laugh. “Now”, Siegel says, “he looks competent but minor compared to Frankenthaler.” Perhaps, three-quarters of a century on, we are at last beginning to find out what really is possible when grappling with her achievement.

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