Frankenthaler at MoCA (2003)
Miami Art Exchange.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, under the guidance of Bonnie Clearwater, has done a superior job of originating and curating informative, well-conceived and well-hung exhibits with professional catalogs. The art in these is not always 100% good or great but it needn't be to inform and educate, and MoCA has become a real oasis in this cultural desert of ours. We are grateful for it.
Now we have "Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper (1949 - 2002)", a major show of a major artist (in a "minor" mode) with a catalog that warms my heart: hard-bound and well-designed, with an extensive essay and just about every painting reproduced in color in a temporal sequence of plates keyed into a fully informative check list. In other words, done right.1 This is actual art, the real thing, a fresh wind blowing into our smoggy atmosphere of retrograde surrealism, juvenile postmodernism and dabbling-with-an-attitude. Anyone around here who wants to look at a lot of good art in one place has to get over to MoCA and see it.
Helen Frankenthaler is an exceptional artist not only because she is so good but also because she is just that: an exception. Her raging natural talent is uncommon enough but the way it has expressed itself is unique in her generation of artists, an odd mirror-reflection of her teacher Hans Hofmann, who matured very late, with a generation of artists 25 years younger than he was, and painted his best paintings in his 80s when most of them were in decline or dead. Frankenthaler is that rarest of abstract painters: a prodigy. Barely out of her teens, she immersed herself in Abstract Expressionism at its very peak, in the years around 1950, and seems to have absorbed in months what it took her elders decades to evolve, not only how to paint but how not to paint, what to leave out and avoid. She developed a process of staining color into canvas and had painted at least one masterpiece with it - Mountains and the Sea, 1952 - before she was 24. One of the delights of this exhibit is a dozen or so paintings she did even before that, in her very early 20s, including a few that show her making extraordinary work right out of Jackson Pollock, which very few of her colleagues ever did well, if at all. Other than the two good but staid Ben Nicolson-like Cubist student pictures from the late 40s and a couple of OK drawings these early pictures are a wonder of assimilation, intensified by a soaring gift for felicitous color and sinuous brushwork. What a natural! I remember too well my own tortuous progress when I was that age. She makes it look so easy I want to sit down and cry. I still remember a painting of hers I saw as a college kid in a 1955 show at the old Whitney Museum. It knocked me for a loop. It was different from the rest, and better, and I had to run to my studio to come to terms with it in my own work.
The exhibit jumps around in time, as any fifty-year retrospective must, and there is some sense of discontinuity as we hop over a half dozen unrepresented years and settle down on another half dozen chock full of pictures. After the early work we move abruptly to a crowd of about a dozen paintings from the years around 1960, when she was married to Robert Motherwell. These blithe, lively, open paintings clearly work in tandem with Motherwell's very similar work of that time, yet curiously he is barely mentioned in Ms. Clearwater's essay nor is there any examination of the close working relationship these pictures put into evidence.
There is little from the middle and later 60s, which to my taste is just as well. Her paintings of that time typically consist of a white canvas base supporting several large, brightly colored, relatively unmodulated, usually abutting areas - represented here by Possibility series, 1966 - which followed the cool minimalist tendencies of the time and give us neither the insouciant bounce of the late 50s nor the suffusing color she had suggested in the early 50s and would bring to flower in the 70s. They are good pictures which are too often placid and inexpressive.
In the 70s there is a step up to another level. The surfaces begin to swim in color, reducing complex or dramatic spatial relationship by using less line and area-to-area value (light/dark) change and abandoning the "dancing" forms of her earlier work for a simpler, squared-up composition to accommodate large, unbroken sweeps of opulent paint. One consequence of this simplification of form is that she is naturally drawn to the horizontality, big space and simple placement of landscape as a formal support, but it functions more as allusion and a way to set up a picture than a concession to realism.
These pictures reflect a revolutionary change pioneered by Jules Olitski in his spray paintings of the late 60s which in my opinion is the best thing to happen in painting since Abstract Expressionism: a "presentational" rather than "relational" method of picture-building suppressing value difference in favor of a relatively uniform colored surface which refuses to relinquish or modify its intrinsic character to do some other kind of pictorial job. This is radical because we see the world in terms of dark and light. Sacrificing value change and edge definition in favor of floods of variegated color discourages accustomed ways of seeing in favor of a singular, direct visual experience of the materials themselves. Even when strong value change comes up in such a picture it is usually apparent as a permeating luminescence or darkness rather than a vehicle of shading and modelling. Time after time, in all the post-1970 Frankenthalers in all mediums I have seen, the best ones are those which utilize this approach. Examples here include Autumn Series IV, 1977, Good Rainy Day Series III, 1978, the two Untitleds of 1984, Untitled, 1989, The Other Side of the Moon, 1995, and Contentment Island, 2002, (which I would have liked better without the "lights" at the top center). And, conversely, pictures which over-articulate in terms of line and value change like Westwind, 1994, (at 6x8 feet, that is a big piece of paper!) and Eve, 1995, (which would be a better painting turned 90 degrees counterclockwise) suffer from it.
One of the hallmarks of inventive genius is the willingness make mistakes and to be impatient with tedious fixing and editing. The advantage is an enhanced opportunity to wrest art from what seems like accident (and to understand that it is anything but). The risk is art that fails, but it is worth it. Frankenthaler has painted plenty of lesser pictures. This does nothing to compromise her accomplishment but for the curator it means that sorting the good from the best becomes more important than ever. Even as I went through the exhibit getting turned on by the art I kept thinking that what we have here is a good show from a great painter. There were too many less than first-rate pictures in periods when so much was so good, and too much emphasis on ideas that never really panned out, like the very minimal 2002 pictures, or the late "dark" pictures, which suffer from being turned into mirrors by the plexiglass covering them (didn't anyone notice that?). I have collected catalogs and brochures for decades and I have a fat file on Frankenthaler. And when I lived near NY I always made a point to see any show of hers I could get to. There are better pictures than we have in this exhibit, some much better, pictures which could have turned it from a must-see into a spectacular. I have no idea what the dynamics of the selection process were, but this is not Frankenthaler as good as she can be.
No matter. It is a fine collection of gorgeous painting. Such things seldom come our way. Don't miss it.
1. I didn't want to interrupt my encomium with criticism so I put this in a footnote.
First - this is nitpicking, I know - I do not think reproducing details of paintings (cover, end papers) has any place in serious catalogs, except to illustrate some specific characteristic. This came to my attention because one of my students was distressed by the fact that he liked the painting on the cover (Eve, 1995), until he realized it was only a small detail of the actual painting. I told him to just look at it any way he wanted to.
And second, Ms. Clearwater, in her otherwise admirable essay, weighs in with one of the standard canards about Clement Greenberg: that he endorsed the idea of "progress" in art. In fact he strenuously disavowed any such notion, many times in conversation, and, as I remember, often enough in print. She failed to make the necessary distinction between "progress" and "development", a fine point, perhaps, but important in this context because it compounds the erroneous image of Greenberg as "proscriber" rather than "describer," an image which any careful reading of his work contradicts.