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Helen Frankenthaler 1928-2011

December 27, 2011

I would be remiss not to note the passing of color field innovator and former abstract expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler. Her contributions to modern art cannot be understated not can I, or anyone else do her justice in a single blog entry or article, although Jerry Saltz does an outstanding job (which I highly recommending reading in full) in his write-up for New York Magazine.

Losing Helen isn’t just a matter of losing another artist — we also lost an innovator, and for women, a genuine trailblazer. Describing her importance as an innovator in modern Art, Saltz nails it. She was an artist that led the way forward:

For a long time — probably too long — not enough people have thought about the far-reaching accomplishments of Helen Frankenthaler, foremost inventor in the fifties of what is variously called American Color Field painting and post-painterly abstraction. Whatever you call this short-lived movement, Frankenthaler used it to throw up an artistic bridge allowing artists to cross the blood-and-thunder-encumbered cosmos of Abstract Expressionism into a new world of Minimalism. Painter Morris Louis called her “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” Minimalist painter Kenneth Noland wrote, “We were interested in Pollock but could gain no lead from him. He was too personal. Frankenthaler showed us a way … to think about, and use color.”

As Saltz points out, she was the first to escape the label “woman artist,” at least as it was known then but it wasn’t for lack of trying by her detractors and critics:

 …the laughably literal readings of her work, which said she was “about menstruation and the liquid world of the feminine.” Frankenthaler had to read dismissals of her work, often contrasting it with Pollock’s, like this: “Her work excites without quite satisfying…she can make a paint-mass spurt like a dike and yet control it till it laps the canvas like a spent wave.” Others fretted over the differences between ejaculation and menstruation. (Oy.)

All this despite the decided rebuttal by color field artists regarding the emotionalism inherent in abstract expressionist works. The logic, emphasis on color, even the invention of technique that are illustrative of her works did not save her from gender stereotypes that associated femininity with emotion, at least not for all in the art world.

Magic Carpet Ride by Helen Frankenthaler

While Saltz points out that she overcame all of this to become more than a ‘woman artist’ and gained a begrudging acceptance and regard, I can’t help but feel the lack of mention she’s received as a genuine revolutionary who changed the art world and art forever, the fact that she has as he says been ignored for too long despite tearing down the doors and forcing an acceptance when she was active, and the general lack of knowledge so many have regarding her and her work, highlights that there is yet much work to be done when it comes to the art world giving women their due, particularly as painters.


From → Art, Uncategorized

  1. Agreed! isn’t there even a sense of that disregard in the myth that you retell here: she was a bridge for other greater male artists to cross over, she showed other (male) artists how to “go beyond Pollock”?

    • Hi Andy,
      Good point about the bridge thing. I’m not sure if that’s what the author intended but if she was/is indeed seen as the wonderful bridge for better male artists to cross over then yeah there’s definitely disregard still in there.

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