Thinking about Helen Frankenthaler | Rock Candy

Thinking about Helen Frankenthaler



Mountains and Sea, Frankenthalers first stain painting.
  • "Mountains and Sea," Frankenthaler's first stain painting.

Helen Frankenthaler, the abstract expressionist stain painter whose lyrical style and translucent and free application of paint inspired more than one generation of aspiring artists (including mine), died today. The New York Times' obituary details her privileged life, her marriage to the artist Robert Motherwell and how her work was critically received.

It has worried me that Frankenthaler's paintings, on raw canvas, will not survive many years. The canvas yellows and the paints lose their luminosity after a while. But they're beautiful things, and criticism that they are too beautiful to be considered high art rolls off my back like water off oil paint ... and I'm sure Frankenthaler didn't give a damn, either.

I once made dinner for Frankenthaler with a classmate at a small apartment in North Bennington, Vt. She was a bit intimidating, but she ate the first chicken I ever cut up and cooked myself, and I'm sure it was awful but she didn't discuss it. I wish I could remember more about the meal, but I was too shy and silly and awed to engage her in conversation, though I'm sure my classmate said something intelligent. Frankenthaler was with Andrew Heiskell, chairman of Time Inc., at the dinner and with him at least I could come up with a question — was he related to John N. Heiskell, the long-time publisher of the Arkansas Gazette? He said he was.

Another classmate, Sigrid Burton, wasn't so shy and just went right up to Frankenthaler and asked her for a job. Frankenthaler said yes. The job entailed putting Vaseline on the lids of Frankenthaler's jars of paint, as I recall.

Earlier this year, New York Times writer Roberta Smith (who also wrote the Crystal Bridges review mentioned here yesterday), said this about Frankenthaler:

Helen Frankenthaler, the doyenne of Color Field painting, might also be described as contemporary art’s answer to James McNeill Whistler. Whistler was, after all, the first American painter to act decisively on the principle that less can indeed be more, especially if delivered with the proper quotient of improvisatory aplomb. Throughout her career Ms. Frankenthaler, who turned 82 in December, has pursued a stripped-down bravura across expanses of unprimed canvas, evolving a gestural Minimalism of floating lines and radiant floods of color, working wet-on-wet in a manner that tolerates few corrections. Like Whistler, she learned a great deal from Asian art, including Chinese ink painting and calligraphy and Japanese screens.

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