The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible. . . . It’s all about risks, deliberate risks.
Gagosian, in cooperation with the Estate of Helen Frankenthaler, is pleased to present a major exhibition devoted to Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings from the 1950s. While Frankenthaler is recognized to be one of the great American artists of the twentieth century, this exhibition is the first in thirty years—and the first in New York City in more than fifty years—to offer a broad survey of this pivotal body of work. It brings together almost thirty paintings, including important yet rarely seen works from Frankenthaler’s estate, and signature works from public and private collections.
Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959 is curated by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and a consultant at Gagosian, who authored the principal monograph on Frankenthaler’s work in 1989.
Works in the exhibition range from the canvas from which the exhibition takes its title, Painted on 21st Street (1950–51), to the celebrated Mountains and Sea, (of 1952); to key paintings of the later 1950s, among them the Museum of Modern Art’s Jacob’s Ladder (1957), and the UC Berkeley Art Museum’s expansive Before the Caves (1958). Together they offer a fresh look at the greater range and diversity of a body of work too often viewed only within the context of Color Field painting. It reveals how, in the 1950s, Frankenthaler was a major second-generation Abstract Expressionist artist who advanced the methods of midcentury painterly abstraction. She did so through the technical innovation of stain painting and by expansion of its affective range of subject matter, drawing inspiration from a broad spectrum of sources, from landscape to the figure, from paleolithic cave paintings to the work of the old masters, and from mythical scenes to childhood memories.
The paintings in Frankenthaler’s first solo exhibition, in 1951, at age twenty-two, synthesized the most radical aspects of the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky, with their textured surfaces, washed with pale color and articulated by calligraphic drawing. The following year she painted Mountains and Sea, a breakthrough composition created by pouring thinned paint onto unsized canvas so that the paint soaked into the canvas, staining rather than coating, to become at once the drawing and the coloring. The abstract Color Field painter Morris Louis would famously remark that Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea was “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible,” but the staining in her own work is often accompanied by paint drawn, scrawled, and splattered, and redolent with associations. In 1954–55, she combined staining with areas of heavy impasto, prior to the greatest run of paintings she made in that decade, in 1956–59. Among these are the pastoral landscape-themed Eden (1956), and Dawn after the Storm (1957, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); re-imaginings of old master paintings, such as Europa (1957); and nursery-rhyme subjects, such as Mother Goose Melody (1959, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts). The final paintings in the exhibition, among them the large Red Square (1959, Bennington College), reveal brighter colors and a more condensed, abstract vocabulary of forms.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully documented and illustrated catalogue with an introduction by John Elderfield; a new, full chronology by Lauren Mahony, which draws upon previously inaccessible archival sources; and important historical texts by the poet and art critic Frank O’Hara (1960) and former Rose Art Museum director Carl Belz (1981).
Helen Frankenthaler: A Painter’s Sculptures
On the occasion of three exhibitions in London exploring different aspects of Helen Frankenthaler’s work, Lauren Mahony introduces texts by the sculptor Anthony Caro and by the artist herself on her relatively unfamiliar first body of sculpture, made in the summer of 1972 in Caro’s London studio.
Augurs of Spring
As spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, Sydney Stutterheim reflects on the iconography and symbolism of the season in art both past and present.
Building a Legacy
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation on COVID-19 Relief Funding
The Quarterly’s Alison McDonald speaks with Clifford Ross, Frederick J. Iseman, and Dr. Lise Motherwell, members of the board of directors of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director, about the foundation’s decision to establish a multiyear initiative dedicated to providing $5 million in covid-19 relief for artists and arts professionals.
Wyatt Allgeier pays homage to the renowned gallerist and artist Betty Parsons (1900–1982).
Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown
Lise Motherwell, a stepdaughter of Helen Frankenthaler and vice president of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Foundation, recently cocurated an exhibition of the artist’s work entitled Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown. Here they discuss the origin of the exhibition, the relationship between the artist’s work and her summers spent in Provincetown, and the presentations at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, in 2018, and the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, in 2019.
On the occasion of the exhibition Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992, at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice, Italy, art historians John Elderfield and Pepe Karmel discuss the concept of the panorama in relation to the artist’s work. Their conversation traces developments in Frankenthaler’s approach to composition, the boundaries and conventions of abstraction, and how, in many ways, her career continually challenged established theories of art history.
Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976
June 17–August 27, 2021
Grosvenor Hill, London