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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Given her present eminence, it’s easy to forget that Helen Frankenthaler was only 23 in 1952 when she painted that landmark picture, "Mountain and Sea." At the time, she was still within the orbit of Clement Greenberg. Yet within three years, her distinctive method of "stain" painting had also captured the eye of an influential antagonist to Greenberg, Thomas B. Hess , editor of Art News (what irony, that Hess should have been chosen to review Greenberg’s “Art and Culture” for the New York Times, when it was published in 1961! Naturally, he complained about what was to become one of the most important books of the decade – but that’s another conversation). Suffice it to say here that Hess featured Frankenthaler prominently in Art News, both in ’55 and ’57.

By 1960, she was sufficiently established to rate her first retrospective, at The Jewish Museum. In that same year, the redoubtable Tatyana Grosman, founder of Universal Limited Art Editions, invited Frankenthaler to make lithographs at the ULAE workshop on Long Island. The difficult but rewarding process by which the artist arrived at finished ULAE prints during her first decade of print-making is the subject of “Helen Frankenthaler: Prints and Proofs of the 1960s from the Artist’s Archive” at Craig F. Starr (through August 13). With the aid of a small but illuminating catalogue by Suzanne Boorsch, curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery, we are walked through the various stages of conceiving a graphic image. In all, 21 images are on display, but only seven are “artist’s proofs,” meaning the final version that the artist has accepted and that ULAE would then replicate. The other 14 are “trial proofs” or “working proofs” (a trial proof being one that has been made from the lithographic stone or stones on which the image has been created in order to see what the print would look like, and a working proof being a trial proof upon which further work has been done, but the artist is still not satisfied with the result).

As the title of this show indicates, all 21 images are drawn from the artist’s private archive. They show how much she asked of herself. Many of the trial and working proofs would have more than satisfied her many admirers, but Frankenthaler kept going until she herself was pleased. “First Stone” (1961) was the artist’s initial lithograph. Employing red, white, blue and black, she created a vigorous image of pirouetting forms in the style of her paintings from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Between the working proof and the artist’s proof, she added red at the bottom, pruned some of the black, enhanced the blue and limited the yellow, making the whole composition more firmly organized.

“White Portal” (1967) resembles the more dignified, reductive style that the artist explored in her painting of the later ‘60s, with two narrow vertical spikes of blue to left and right, plus a slightly broader horizontal band of yellow joining them at the bottom. This exhibition also includes five preliminary stages that the image went through. First comes a black and white collage, followed by several instances of a wide, downward sweep of ephemeral white on pieces of light brown, rust or blue-gray paper. After integrating this soft white shape into the middle of the finished version of “White Portal,” Frankenthaler later made it into another even more reductive and more striking lithograph, “Silent Curtain” (1967-69). And that’s just the beginning of this highly intriguing -- and very beautiful -- show.

Only three blocks away, Hollis Taggart has mounted “Theodoros Stamos: A Communion with Nature” (extended through July 9). Though only six years older than Frankenthaler, Stamos was just 20 when he had his first solo exhibition at the Wakefield gallery in 1943, making him a bona fide member of the first generation of abstract expressionists (he died in 1997, at the age of 74). Greenberg sneered at his painting in the 1948 Whitney Annual, calling it “utterly empty,” and adding that Stamos had “borrowed most of his style from the lower registers of William Baziotes, a serious and vastly superior artist.” Irving Sandler left Stamos out of “The Triumph of American Painting” (while including such inferior second-generation abstract expressionists as Philip Guston and Bradley Walker Tomlin), but Greenberg at any rate later relented. He would go around telling anybody who’d listen that he’d misjudged Stamos and that Stamos was really a good painter.

Ruminating later on the Hollis Taggart show, I found myself wondering what Greenberg really meant when he said he’d changed his mind about Stamos. Was it because he’d reconsidered the paintings he’d seen in the ‘40s, or was it because he liked the work Stamos had done later, in the ‘50s or even the ‘60s? On the basis of this show, I am inclined to think that the latter possibility may be the more likely. About three-quarters of the work on view was done since 1950, and, although none of this later work can make any claims to historical significance, some of it is very attractive. Here I would cite primarily “Deseret” (1959), a large and sunny composition with clouds of rich yellow at the sides and a broad white band down the middle. The brushwork is tight, but nonetheless variegated, blessedly free of the overwrought “gestural” messiness common to de Kooning and his many imitators, which Greenberg so rightly disliked (and which Tom Hess so tediously promoted).

In this sense, Stamos emerges as kin to those few second-generation New York-based abstract expressionists who also declined to play follow the leader, among them Esteban Vicente, Robert Goodnough and Herman Cherry (all of whom Greenberg respected). Moving on into the 1960s, Stamos abandoned oils for acrylics and even took up a modified form of post-painterly abstraction (though not apparently quickly or emphatically enough to rate inclusion in Greenberg’s 1964 exhibition of that name). At Hollis Taggart, “Homage to Milton Avery: Sun Box III” (1969) may be taken as typical of this post-painterly approach.

Unlike me, Greenberg cared little for historical significance in evaluating painting of the second half of the 20th century – if a painting worked, that was really all that mattered to him. Speaking at least partially as an art historian, however, I’d say that Stamos’s claims to historical significance – and for that reason, the show’s real excitement for me –- still lurk in the nine small to medium-sized oils from the ‘40s. Murky in color, heavy in facture, mostly on Masonite or board, they evoke winter, night skies or ocean depths, but to see them evolve from vaguely representational to vaguely abstract is like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis: it is – in miniature --- the evolution of abstract expressionism from its origins in surrealism to its multireferential maturity. Characteristic of the earlier part of the sequence is “Coney Island” (1945), with a strange little tree, odd little log, weird little bench, and vestigial roller-coaster skeleton amid snow. Summing up the later part is “Migration” (1948), with a black skeletonic form laid horizontally on a sickly bluish, pinkish field, resembling little but suggesting much, from a human backbone to a mighty prehistoric bird seen from above. .. (© Copyright 2010 by Piri Halasz)

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