Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011


We note with sadness the passing of die painter Helen Frankenthaler, who died on December 27 at eighty-three. Frankenthaler, who stepped confidently onto the stage of artistic celebrity in her early twenties, was, for some six decades, an expressive presence in the decorous uplands of American culture, chiefly through her painting but also through her quiet support of high artistic standards. She served with distinction on the National Council on the Arts, the governing body of the National Endowment for the Arts, at a tumultuous moment in the 1980s and helped redirect, if but temporarily, that institution from its infatuation with the repellent antics of the pseudo-avant garde. At the time of her first success in die early 1950s, Frankenthaler was one of a handful of woman artists in the macho and male-dominated purlieus of the New York School. Yet "woman artist" was always a misnomer for Frankenthaler. Although her detractors deprecated an element of "prettiness" in her art (the qualifier "mere" being silently insinuated before the word "prettiness"), she never presented herself in the affirmative-action sweepstakes as a female, let alone as a feminist, artist. She was a painter who happened to be a woman, not a woman artist.

A recurrent theme in the many obituaries that have appeared these past weeks concerns Frankenthaler's signature "soak-stain" technique of imbuing canvas with paint. …

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Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011
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