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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



As most of the world knows by now, Helen Frankenthaler died on December 27. I will miss her, and I'm sure many others will, too. David Cohen has been kind enough to publish my formal tribute to her in his webzine, artcritical.com A few more informal & personal reminiscences follow below.

When I first met Helen Frankenthaler in 1969, she was only 40 years old, but what in some ways had been the most eventful period in her life was already behind her. Our initial encounter took place in her studio, on Third Avenue around 83rd Street. This was only a couple of blocks from 234 East 82nd Street, where I’d lived between 1960 and 1965—even in ’69 I was only living at 440 East 79th Street, still in the neighborhood. Immediately, therefore, I felt a kinship with her. This feeling grew when I learned that she’d attended the Brearley and Dalton schools, being less happy at the first and a lot happier at the second. I too had attended those schools, in the same order, and with similar emotions. A third source of this feeling of closeness was the fact that she casually referred, in conversation, to having been in analysis as a young woman. I was still in analysis myself, but the atmosphere on Time, where I worked, was hostile to analysis, and practically nobody ever admitted they were partaking of it. It was such a relief to be back in a Freud-compatible world!. Finally, there was the fact that Frankenthaler was a successful woman in what was still largely a man’s art world—and so was I (in a different world, the world of journalism)

Of course, I wasn’t nearly as gifted, successful or famous as Frankenthaler was, so I was jealous of her, too. The article I wrote about her was a turning point in my life, but not achieved without intense strain. While I was writing it, late into the night, I was so jealous that I started retching into the wastebasket as I wrote. But the article impressed a lot of people, including Frankenthaler and Clement Greenberg, whom I’d also interviewed for it, though he’d declined to speak for the record and was accordingly not quoted in it. It was Frankenthaler who’d set up my meeting with Greenberg, and for that single act, I can never thank her enough.

I remember, I was surprised when I met her at what a svelte, petite figure she had. I mean, I don’t know what her dress size was, but she seemed petite by comparison with her paintings, these huge, whistling sails and vigorous, jumping blurts of color that were filling the Whitney to overflowing. So much energy, so much vitality. Anybody who thought of them as ladylike didn’t know much about painting (or about women). Eugene Goossen, chairman of the Hunter College art department who had organized the show, escorted me around it and helped me to know it better. Gene Goossen talked about how frequently Frankenthaler would call him, with constructive suggestions. “Constructive” was a word he used about her a lot.

She was constructive with me, too, saying towards the end of our interviews that she hoped we could keep in touch. I was in awe of her, and didn’t know how to begin, but not too long after the article appeared, I got an invitation to a drinks party from Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Vogue, and his wife Tatiana. I think this must have been Frankenthaler's idea, and it was quite a party, stuffed with art-world luminaries. I know Frankenthaler must also have been responsible for the invitation I got, later that spring, to a drinks party given by H. H. Arnason, the art historian, after the opening of a Motherwell show at Marlborough (his “Open” series). But the week before, she had already done me an even greater favor by returning a phone call I’d left for her, while going through an intensely difficult week at Time, where I’d been trying to put together a story about the firing of the director of the Museum of Modern Art. Frankenthaler had been in London during that week, but she returned my call over the weekend, and, as I gibbered on, she gently advised me to tell it to my analyst. The very fact that she was willing to call me back & listen to me had a steadying influence.

The following fall, I resigned from Time, and decided to go to London to write what I thought of as a novel. In the month before I left, I wrote everybody in New York I knew, and asked if we couldn’t have a farewell drink or something and could they give me the names of London friends I might look up. I got a lot of lunches & drinks out of those notes, and one of the lunches was with Frankenthaler. Being in a rather upset state of mind at that point, the only things I remember about it was that she got a piece of glass in her salad, and that she gave me the names of three famous London friends to contact. After I got back from London, and when I eventually went to graduate school, we had lunch a couple of more times, once at her house, once at mine. She also kept me on her mailing list, and I went to all of her openings. The lunches & the mailing list were in stark contrast with almost everybody else I’d met through Time. Everybody and their godmother, of course, sent invites to Time’s art writer, but only to Frankenthaler (and to Greenberg) was I a person, not a name that no longer appeared on a masthead.

After I’d deposited my dissertation, I wrote three articles that appeared in Arts Magazine in early 1983 about art criticism (and art history) in New York, the 1940s vs. the 1980s. A lot of people liked that series, but Frankenthaler was one of the relatively few who took the trouble to write me a little note, saying that she’d liked them. I am afraid I sorely tried her patience that September when I published the article that also appeared in Arts, introducing my concept of multireferential imagery. She disliked the concept intensely, saying that I was only offering “a hook” or a “way in” to abstract painting. These terms were strange to me, until years later, when I did the research for A Memoir of Creativity and learned that they had originally been used in the mid-50s, to describe the return of de Kooning to representational painting with his monster Women. I don’t think that Frankenthaler ever really appreciated the fact that I wasn’t trying to make abstraction seem just like representation, but rather something richer and more various. Still, in her later life, she became more willing to admit that many different people saw many different things in her paintings, and even to ally herself with those who thought they were close to landscapes.

In August 1983, between the time when I’d turned in the article on multireferential imagery, and the time when it actually appeared, I was in a very distressed state of mind, and the psychiatrist that I was then seeing was on vacation. His vacation replacement was no help, so again I called Frankenthaler. Again, she got back to me, and offered me two very constructive suggestions---get exercise and give parties. Both of these suggestions made a lot of sense, and I still try to follow them, whenever I can or must. She also invited me out to lunch at her home in Stamford. It was a lovely occasion. The other guests were Thomas Messer of the Guggenheim and Patrick Jones, a young English painter whom she had (or would) help to get a job at Hunter College, enabling him to stay in the U.S. Messer, I remember, had brought his swimsuit, and took a dip in Long Island Sound. Frankenthaler showed Jones and myself around her studio. She had a couple of dried starfish that she’d painted with iridescent mauve paint, and she gave them to us (Jones, as the artist, got the complete starfish; myself, being only an art critic, got the starfish with a leg missing, but I didn’t mind).

During these later years, Frankenthaler became more and more distinguished, collecting 26 honorary degrees and the National Medal of the Arts, as well as (in 2011) becoming an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. She also engaged in public service, acting as a member of Bennington College’s board of trustees from 1967 to 1982, and a member of the National Council on the Arts from 1985 to 1992. Having divorced Motherwell in the early 70s, she remarried in 1994. Her new husband was Stephen M. DuBrul, Jr. (who died on January 4, the week after she did). I myself saw practically nothing of her, but again, when I needed her, she was there. In 1999, I wanted to move into a cooperative apartment, and needed references. She was willing to supply one (my real estate agent, an art lover, was in seventh Heaven at having actually received a letter of reference from Helen Frankenthaler).

On one occasion, she also sent me a correction for something I’d published in From the Mayor’s Doorstep. I’d told an anecdote I’d heard about her and Greenberg going to Italy in the 50s, and her being impressed at paintings in the museums by Ignoti, leading her to say that she never knew “Ignoti” (Anonymous) was such a good painter.” What Frankenthaler had actually said was “I never knew that Scuola was such a good painter.” (This is even funnier, since “scuola” really sounds like somebody’s name, though all it means is “school,” as in “Bolognese School,” “School of Lombardy, etc.).

So--along with everything else, Frankenthaler had a sense of humor. The week after I’d done the story on her in Time, I did a story on Nancy Graves, who at that point was exhibiting lifelike camels at the Whitney (my policy on Time at that point being to cover the waterfront, regardless of how I felt). Frankenthaler’s comment: “Now I know how it feels to be over the camel’s hump.”

I know that some people tell nasty stories about her, and what a difficult person she was supposed to be. I shall remember her not only as a fantastic artist, but also as an exceptionally decent & lovable person.
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