Helen Frankenthaler died today

I remember first seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings, and not quite getting them. Pollock and de Kooning were macho men, and they flaunted their machismo in physical, almost violent paintings. Having spent a good deal of time looking at Pollock and de Kooning (and David Smith, and other first generation abstractionists), I had gotten the mistaken idea that American abstract artists had to put on a tough-guy attitude in order to succeed.

Frankenthaler just painted. After I got over my mistaken idea that abstract painting had to be macho, I came to appreciate the subtleties of her washes of color, and her supple drawing style. I never came to love Frankenthaler’s work, but looking at her paintings opened me up to better understand the quiet paintings of artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Diebenkorn, and the Southern Song painter Chen Rong who most famously painted the “Nine Dragons” scroll. No macho posturing, just deeply insightful painting.

Large-scale paintings like Frankenthaler’s — reflective paintings with emotional subtlety and nuanced color, often paintings that are of, or resemble, landscapes — provoke a profound mystical response in me. They take me beyond human concerns to transcendent plane. Maybe Frankenthaler was never one of my favorite painters, but she would make my short list of painters whose work you’d want to have dominating a worship space.

Obituary at Art in America.

3 thoughts on “Helen Frankenthaler died today”

  1. I had never heard of her until I went to the cheap-posters sale to get a few things for the walls of my first-year college dorm room. The Frankenthaler piece that had been chosen for a poster created a sensation of my lungs expanding and a space opening up in front of me, as if I had been walking through a narrow hallway and unexpectedly come out onto a balcony overlooking a vast valley. Many of the pieces of hers I’ve seen since then does nothing for me, while other pieces also have an effect that I would also call mystical, and, if this is not contradictory, visceral. I like the Abstract Expressionists okay, but few of their paintings (as distinct from their sculptures) have this effect on me, Rothko’s being a notable exception.

  2. When I ponder the contrasts between Frankenthaler’s paintings and those of Pollock or de Kooning, I am reminded of the 18th century struggle between the “Beautiful and the Sublime”. I do love Frankenthaler and her artwork embodies the beautiful, the gentle and rolling peacefulness of nature that you see in the East Coast woodlands. Pollock is more like a rugged Big Sur or Yosemite landscape; quite a bit unsettling, dwarfing our fragile souls. Both the experience of the beautiful and the experience of the sublime seem mystical, but of qualitatively different sorts: expansive vs. yielding in their influences.

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