Monday, November 17th, 2008

Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades at Knoedler & Company

November 6, 2008 to January 10, 2009
19 East 70th Street at Madison Avenue
New York City, 212 794 0550

Helen Frankenthaler A Green Thought in a Green Shade 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 119 x 156-1/2 inches. all images Copyright © 2008 Helen Frankenthaler, Courtesy Knoedler & Company
Helen Frankenthaler A Green Thought in a Green Shade 1981. Acrylic on canvas, 119 x 156-1/2 inches. all images Copyright © 2008 Helen Frankenthaler, Courtesy Knoedler & Company

“Frankenthaler at Eighty” is a richly rewarding experience. What I got from it was not raw feeling but what some call “the esthetic emotion;” and what Susanne Langer has equated to “exhilaration.” The artist who would evoke it can’t simply pour paint onto canvas. First, she must learn to combine discipline with devotion. Frankenthaler has.

In the early 1950s, when she was going around with Clement Greenberg, the two cased Manhattan galleries together, seeing everything from Pollock to Sir Alfred Munnings, the British horse painter. They’d get a catalogue of each show, and grade the paintings in it. One check meant they liked it, two meant they really liked it, three checks was “wow!” Then they’d try to analyze why some paintings “worked” better than others.

During this period, Frankenthaler painted “Mountains and Sea” (1952), the famous painting that bridged the gap between Pollock and the future. Many of her contemporaries were imitating the more traditional brushwork of de Kooning, but she took Pollock’s black “stain paintings” of 1951, thinned her paint still farther, and swabbed it onto a swathe of canvas, inspiring Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Frankenthaler’s own painting continued to develop into a highly personal but diverse idiom. Its range can be seen in the current show, curated by Karen Wilkin: included are just nine paintings from the artist’s personal collection.

Only one of the nine got no checkmarks from me: Rake’s Progress (1991) is a noble experiment that just doesn’t come off. Still, an artist has to take risks if she is to renew her art, and Frankenthaler deserves marks for daring to paint a postmodernist picture (alas, I‘m an incorrigible modernist). I also felt that Sphinx (1975) is not quite up to the standard set by other paintings here, though I liked it well enough to give it one check. Its large, soft, succulent central areas of peach and tan, garnished with touches of crimson, are very satisfying, but I felt vaguely let down by how one side was covered with greige and the other left bare. Aerie(1995), a painting of greater stature, suffers from its context. Its sprightly linear pattern of red arches and a blue wave across the bottom of the paper is delightful, and would dominate an exhibition all of work on paper. Here, every other painting is on canvas, and the way paint sinks more into canvas leaves Aerie looking by comparison a bit dry.

On the other hand, Western Dream (1957), Snow Basin (1990), and Warming Trend (2002) are all excellent, rating two, maybe two-and-a-half checks. Western Dream is incredibly complex, invigorating and ambitious, with many smaller shapes—in soft, romantic pinks or light reds, blues from light to darker, brownish olive, gray—natural but also cultural (suggesting flowers and plants but also fine synthetic fabrics). Maybe just a tiny bit too much is going on here (the artist was only twenty-eight when she made it). Snow Basin is a horizontal picture with bands of pale colors, partially blotted out by masses of white. Parts of the paint surface are raised, but more effectively than in Rake’s Progress (the paint is opaque, not shiny). If you look at this painting long enough, you’ll feel yourself dizzied by its dazzling whiteness. Warming Trend also becomes very moving upon long contemplation. Its nearly monochromatic dark blue with purple highlights reminds me of late Rothko.

Helen Frankenthaler Pink Lady 1963. Oil on canvas, 84-1/2 x 58 inches
Helen Frankenthaler, Pink Lady 1963. Oil on canvas, 84-1/2 x 58 inches

The three greatest paintings in this show are A Green Thought in a Green Shade (1981),Provincetown I (1961) and Pink Lady (1963). Not only are all three “wows” in themselves, but together they show Frankenthaler’s range.

A Green Thought is named after a passage in “The Garden” by the 17th-century Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell.  The painting’s sumptuous green field suggests a garden, especially as embellished with floating dabs and flecks of flower-like reds, mustard, white, blue, deeper green and pink—but its overall-ness endows it with a second, formal dimension, echoing but also embroidering upon Pollock’s classic “drip” paintings.

Provincetown is even better. I’d give it four checks instead of three, for its extraordinary dynamism and balance, with the vehemently but cleanly delineated pink-and-brown square surrounding a central blue-and-brown image set high upon the canvas. This height cows the viewer while she contemplates the savagely but gracefully pinioned bird-like or Crucifixion shape in the center. Like all true abstractions, Provincetown is ambiguous, reflecting many different sources in the external world but committing itself to none.

Still more alive with energy is Pink Lady, another four check painting, though it abandons mean, clean lines in favor of seething but still serene clouds of color. A “pink lady” is a cocktail made with gin, Grenadine, cream and egg white—the gin packs a punch masked by the more ladylike ingredients. The punch in this painting lies in how its image, suggesting (among much else) an orchid and a human heart, boils upward and outward, from its slate-blue core through the billowing peach and fuchsia of its sides to the splattering blast of blue and reds at the top.