Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Helen At Berggruen

Bias Blue, 1965, @ Helen Frankenthaler

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships? Well, no, but it's the name and the work of an artist who has carried the banner of original abstract painting high for almost 50 years. To be young, talented, and ambitious in the NY of the 1950's was not such a gift if you were also a woman. But if you were all of the above, and smart/and or lucky enough to fall in with the most influential art critic of the times (Clement Greenberg), marry another one of the giants of American Painting (Robert Motherwell) and not fall prey to the shadows that consumed many of the women artists of the time, you too could still be a "name" in the art world. 

Granada, 1953. @ Helen Frankenthaler

Her technique of staining or soaking color into unprimed canvas was different enough to bring critical attention but it's the quality that continues to command respect - the lyrical watercolor aesthetic that harkens back to John Marin and Arthur Dove. Her breakthrough painting, Mountains and Sea (1953) came after a year spent studying and assimilating Pollock's work. This piece made her reputation and established her signature style.

Orange Underline, 1963. @ Helen Frankenthaler.

Her fluid, intuitive visual language - poured paint on unprimed canvas - does not photograph well. In photographs, you miss the shock of paint against the off-cream of the canvas, the halo effect of the colors, the blurred edges. I think that her work remains popular because it makes no demands on the viewer beyond appreciating the dreamy, creamy colors.

In the introduction to "Helen Frankenthaler, A Paintings Retrospective" (E.A Carmean, Jr), the author asked her what viewers should learn from her work. Ms Frankenthaler responded, "in my art I've moved and have been able to grow. I've been someplace. Hopefully, others should be similarly moved."

I enjoyed her lyrical pieces in the exhibit but I wasn't sure that that she had been anywhere other than where she first started, back in 1953. Some of the pieces are more shapeless than lyrical and some of the colors are muddy and indistinct. Even Polllock came to a stuck place in his drip-and-pour process. Ms. Frankenthanler has been at it a long time and it's natural that not all the paintings are up to the highest standards. If she were a lesser-known artist, she might be less indulged and that's not a bad thing. The show could have done with a more rigorous selection process with a few of the weaker pieces put in the back room. That would have made the huge, wall sized paintings stand out more.

Nevertheless, to have a solo exhibit of an artist of this stature here in the Bay Area is a grand treat.There aren't many living artists of the second-generation of abstract expressionists still around and fewer still are women. Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner are all gone so the fact that Frankenthaler is still going strong is something of a miracle.

Essay on Robert Motherwell and the Humanism of Abstraction at Venetian Red:

No comments: