Bias Blue, 1965, @ Helen Frankenthaler
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. Helen Frankenthaler is still a "name" in the contemporary art world. The current exhibit at is a rare look at a thirty year time span, one which is even more rare because none of the local museums have any of her work (or at least, not on display). She has also been fiercely protective of her work, often not allowing images to be reproduced, either in magazines or on the web. So to to see them here in San Francisco, in the flesh, as it were, is doubly unique.
Granada, 1953. @ Helen Frankenthaler
At the time, her staining or soaking technique of 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.
Helen Frankenthaler Provincetown 1, 1965
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."
Helen Frankenthaler. Winter Energy
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 with muddy and indistinct colors. Even her master, Jackson 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. That would have made the better pieces stand out more.
Helen Frankenthaler. Movable Blue, 1973
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.
All images courtesy of the John Berggruen Gallery; copyright Helen Frankenthaler