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.