Magazine article Artforum International

Helen Frankenthaler: GAGOSIAN GALLERY

Magazine article Artforum International

Helen Frankenthaler: GAGOSIAN GALLERY

Article excerpt

In the days following Helen Frankenthaler's death, on December 27, 2011, my Facebook feed teemed with JPEG memorials, makeshift tributes to a painter many had forgotten. The image I remember best was a photograph of the artist in her studio, taken by Douglas Banks for Life magazine in 1956; it shows Frankenthaler sitting on top of, and surrounded by, her canvases of the previous half decade, including the breakthrough Mountains and Sea, 1952, as if ensconced in a sort of aqueous dream-cubicle.

Banks's portrait of Frankenthaler is seductive, but also troubling: While ostensibly emphasizing the physical contact between artist and artwork, it has the effect of distancing one from the other, encouraging us to doubt whether the young woman in the picture (only twenty-eight in 1956) could possibly have birthed such wild pictorial ferment. The photo casts her in the role of seated oracle, as the spokesmodel for her art--a far cry from "action painting," indeed. Already by the 1950s, the charge of passivity had disqualified Frankenthaler from the circle of critic Harold Rosenberg; alternatively, a younger generation of abstract painters, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, would point to her decision, in 1952, to pour thinned paint directly on to unprimed cotton duck, thereby permeating the picture surface with color, as an early win for procedure over gesture. The Life photograph arguably summarizes these misprisions of Frankenthaler's work, subsuming the term "passive" to the modifier "woman."

Enter John Elderfield, whose recent survey of Frankenthaler's work of 1950-59 at Gagosian sought to reconnect the artist and her art, foregrounding her path from Cubist compactness to the luminous, open fields of her stained canvases. The show, Elderfield's second at the gallery since his retirement as the Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of painting and sculpture in 2008, was as gripping an elegy as the recently departed painter could have hoped for, collecting all the major canvases of her breakthrough decade, including Mountains and Sea; Eden, 1956; Jacob's Ladder, 1957; and Mother Goose Melody, 1959. Recalling the main arguments of Frankenthaler's 1989 MOMA retrospective, also curated by Elderfield, this exhibition emphasized the breathtaking pace of her progress in the '50s, beginning with Painted on 21st Street, 1950, a canvas that exploded the figure/ground binary that had structured her previous paintings, dispersing heterogeneous gestures across the picture plane in a breathable meshwork. …

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