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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."



Helen Frankenthaler, Las Mayas, 1958.  Oil on canvas, 100 x 43.255 inches (254 x 109.9 cm).  Courtesy Yares  Art.   Artwork by Helen Frankenthaler © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York




 Helen Frankenthaler was a great artist and a sympathetic personality – for me, at any rate. Though we were never that close, I feel privileged to have known her.  When I met her, on the occasion of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1969, she was at the peak of her form and the work bowled me over.  I wish I could say the same of "Helen Frankenthaler: Selected Paintings" at Yares Art (through May 18).  Still, despite the problems inherent in putting together a show of work by an artist now eight years dead, there is much at Yares to be enjoyed and appreciated (or at least there was, when I last saw the show on March 27).


Frankenthaler first distinguished herself in the 1950s, with many marvelous paintings in a style that I might call "passionate frenzy," with lots of squiggles and exuberant splats! and loose, free, wiggly forms. 


She was not the only artist who might be characterized in that way and not even the only woman artist – Joan Mitchell was also working the passionate frenzy vein, though her inspiration came (more directly) from de Kooning rather than Pollock, as Frankenthaler's (less directly) did.


Mitchell never outgrew her passionate frenzy manner, instead allowing it to settle into a mannerism.  Frankenthaler moved on in the early 1960s from a Dionysian mode to an Apollonian one, with large simple areas of flat, pure and delicious color, indescribably calm and serene. 


The article I wrote about Frankenthaler for Time in 1969, pegged on the Whitney show, reproduced in color (with remarkable accuracy) five large and superb paintings from Frankenthaler's Apollonian period, beginning with "The Human Edge" (1967), owned then and now by the Everson Museum. 


The spread took up four pages, and in a sense made the accompanying story superfluous.  I could have been filling up those six columns of print with the alphabet, and Time's 20 million readers would still have been able to see for themselves what a truly great artist Frankenthaler was.


When I came to the Yares opening reception, on March 2, I received a very favorable impression of the show.  However, I never rely on my impressions at openings, as the wine and greeting friends are too great a distraction. 


Glancing around I did see two or maybe three medium-sized and mostly pink paintings – and I subsequently saw their images on Facebook, where mutual friends had posted i-phoned snaps. 


As I never try to evaluate reproductions, I was looking forward to being able to study those pink paintings in the flesh when I revisited the show on March 27. Sad to say, they were no longer there – presumably sold and dispatched post-haste to their new owners. 


In their place the gallery had hung a couple of large, dark later paintings that interested me a whole lot less.


The Yares show – anyway, when I viewed it on March 27 -- had five paintings from the 1950s, five more from the 1960s and eight from 1971 to 1990 -- the last-named coming from a period when, let's face it, Frankenthaler's successes became much fewer and far between. 


That is not to say these any of these paintings were terrible, just that they only occasionally stood out.  Two that did were "Closing the Gap" (1979) and "Truro" (1984).


Of the five works from the 60s, none were up to the level of those terrific paintings I'd reproduced in 1969, though "Wine Dark" (1965), a tall narrow picture hung at the end of the corridor leading to the office, was very lovely in its own right, and "Swan Lake II" (1961) and "Summer Core" (1968) were both nice.


The other three best pictures were all from the artist's Dionysian period from the 1950s, and they still looked fresh and exciting.  "First Blizzard" (1957) was hanging right at the entrance to the gallery.  Though not large (only 50 x 60 inches), it's a goosey, vivid mixture of swirls and sweeps.


Two tall, narrow and quite famous pictures were hanging side by side, "Las Mayas" (1958) and "Nude" (1958). Gracefully and delicately characterized by free and easy brushwork, both suggest and/or imply standing human figures without being tedious or literal about it.


I do hope that one or both of these paintings are still on view so that any of my readers who haven't yet gotten to this show can go and look at them.  They are definitely Frankenthaler in peak form.


(Incidentally, some of my readers may be saying to themselves, how can Halasz possibly remember what those Time magazine color reproductions look like after 50 years? Undoubtedly the patina of age has gilded them in her memory and she's remembering them as more beautiful than they really are. 


(To this I protest that I have been looking at that issue of Time much more recently than that – having just obtained a fresh copy from E-bay. This is in preparation for a talk I have been invited to give by the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton on August 18, 2019 at 5 pm. 


(This talk has been timed to coincide with "Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown," when it will be at the Parrish Art Museum in nearby Water Mill.  Most of the pictures in this show will be from the late 1950s to the early 70s, so viewers I hope will be able to see for themselves more examples of this great artist in peak form. 


(The talk itself is titled "Jackson & Life & Helen & Time" and in it I will be discussing two occasions on which the mass media tried to present very sophisticated art to much less sophisticated readers. I am one of the few people who has dealt with this subject and knows from personal experience how the mass media actually work….should anybody wish to attend this talk, I would love to see you.  Admission is free and no reservations are required.  For further details, including exactly where the talk will be given, see the Calendar section of the Pollock-Krasner website.)

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