|Helen Frankenthaler, 1963, THE BAY, 81 x 82"|
Helen Frankenthaler transformed the interior landscape as abstract painting in a way that no one else has before or since. Her epic and panoramic expanses hold true to a world and universe unfettered and uninfluenced by man or men. It is a place devoid of ego, and free from everything that that entails. Despite its correspondence with land and sea and sky it is a pure abstraction that we haven't seen since Popova, and may never see again.
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1973, HINT FROM BASSANO|
It reflects a place unique in the aesthetic experience of 20th century modernism. A kind of non-intellectual dialogue that is difficult for most of us to grasp. Something Zen. Where there is no "there there." * The sort of wonderful liberation of form from self and purpose that befuddles most of us.
Plenty of abstract painters have sought this kind of painterly nirvana. Pollock, Resnick, Seliger, Poons, Louis, de Kooning, Hofmann, and of course, Motherwell, to name just a few. But somehow THEY were always present. Their will. Their mission. Their agenda. Their mark.
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1990, RED SHIFT, 60 x 70"|
What makes Frankenthaler so magnificent is that she was able to make a world that we knew was hers without leaving her stamp on it, that she could sidestep the paradox, that she could compose without being the composer. That like Bruce Springsteen's street poet, could just "stand back and let it all be."
|Charles Seliger, 1995, TEMPEST, 14 x 14 " |
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
An artist like Charles Seliger indeed tried to tread ever so lightly in his ethereal abstractions, and did, but couldn't help but leave the tiniest trace, a footprint here, a fingerprint there, a stain, an overall perfume. He tried to get so small, to leave himself behind, and said in effect, just ignore little old me and look where I am pointing. See the cosmos that I see. He got so very close, but again some paradox kept getting in the way. Some catch 22. The law of attraction. It became a snag. Mortal like the rest of us. How could he elude the "there there?"
|Bill Jensen, 2010-11, LOUHAN(Dark Angel), oil on linen, 28 x23" |
Courtesy of Cheim&Read
Twenty years or so ago one of the best living American painters, Bill Jensen, crossed over that threshold and has never looked back. He parked his ego and got out and walked. We are still watching. His paintings intrigue us in this very way. They flirt with that edge. Maybe they are there. Maybe they are long gone.
|Mark Rothko, 1951, BLUE, GREEN AND BROWN|
Over sixty years ago Rothko gave us a misty place, but it was still a kind of figure of sorts, something profoundly ontological, a question, a prime mover, a God. Western Man has this hang-up: themes; man vs nature, man vs society, man vs himself, man vs God. Man, man, man!
Here she is the figure in her paintings that are the ground;
When we view her work we stand in her shoes.
Frankenthaler, one of the great but often overlooked abstract artists of the last century, gives us none of this. Just a ground. Just an invisible frame. A wide open window. Something like the weather. A view to uninhabited space. A view to a beautiful but savage universe.
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1972, CHINA II, 80 x 105"|
This is what is also so interesting about the work. As it seems so non-intellectual we assume that it is governed by emotions. So "just like a woman." That it is a rich emotional landscape. Overflowing with clichéd "feminine feelings." Positively dripping with them. Watery. Colorfully so!
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1950-1959, Gagosian installation(2013)|
Ironically, nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead it is rather a heartless world. A pitiless, uncaring world. So like nature itself. A world to which we become the witness; we become the figure on the ground. An infinite world of power and change and growth and decay and survival and consequence without human attributes or sentiments like justice, and fairness, and what is right and wrong. Which is what makes the work so awesome and terrifyingly beaufiful. It just is.
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1979, CAROUSEL, Installation Palm Springs Art Museum|
|Helen Frankenthaler, 1969, BLESSING THE FLEET|
Spring Hill, Feb. 2016
*Gertrude Stein, when writing about her hometown of Oakland, California