Gagosian Quarterly

July 14, 2015

after frankenthalerAn Interview with Katy Siegel

Art historian Katy Siegel discusses her recent exhibition at the Rose Art Museum and publication “The heroine Paint”: After Frankenthaler with Gagosian’s Alison McDonald.

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan at the opening of Frankenthaler’s solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, February 12, 1957. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Grace Hartigan at the opening of Frankenthaler’s solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, February 12, 1957. Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Alison McDonald

Alison McDonald is the Chief Creative Officer at Gagosian and has overseen marketing and publications at the gallery since 2002. During her tenure she has worked closely with Larry Gagosian to shape every aspect of the gallery’s extensive publishing program and has personally overseen more than five hundred books dedicated to the gallery’s artists. In 2020, McDonald was included in the Observer’s Arts Power 50.

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Katy Siegel

Katy Siegel is the Thaw Endowed Chair at Stony Brook University and senior research curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Her exhibitions include Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, and High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967–75. She is the author of Since ’45: America and the Making of Contemporary Art.

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Alison McDonaldThe exhibition you curated for the Rose Art Museum, Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler, positioned Frankenthaler as “a lens through which to refocus
 a vision of modernist art over the past sixty years.” What are some examples of the way this idea surfaced throughout the exhibition?

Katy SiegelIt began with an account of the 1950s as “inclusive and generous,” to borrow Frank O’Hara’s take on how Frankenthaler embodied the spirit 
of that moment. Taking that spirit as the guiding light for the show, what emerges again and again is decoration, pleasure, and the everyday, along with gender and sexuality. The power and positivity of these threads become stronger throughout the course of the show. These qualities were once seen in a negative light, or as something to conceal, but by the end of the show they become positive, desired by artists and society.

AMCDWhat was it that initiated your interest in this project?

KSThe wish to understand the very real content and passion behind contemporary art that can often be easily dismissed as “light” or decorative. Some of the same critical prejudices that oppose pleasure and play to intellectual or political seriousness persist today. Those prejudices are historical and they are wrong; they prevent us from really seeing.

AMCDDid anything about your thinking change during the exhibition planning and installation?

KSIt was fascinating to realize how directly the feminine sensibility, which was a negative critical category in the 1950s, turned into a positive attribute, one to be cultivated, for artists like Lynda Benglis, Miriam Schapiro, and Faith Wilding. I had not realized how direct and historical the connection was between what had been called lyrical or formalist painting and subsequent feminist work.

AMCDWhat are some of your favorite responses to the exhibition?

KSMy favorite responses are the mutual surprise and recognition between people who know 
the 1950s work well but were unaware of the contemporary art that reflects some of the same attitudes, and the people deeply engaged with contemporary art who don’t know the history. Introducing those artists to each other is like introducing long-lost cousins. And in general, it was nice to see the pleasure the artists took from being included in this particular version of history.

After Frankenthaler: An Interview with Katy Siegel

Helen Frankenthaler, Hommage à M.L., 1962, oil on canvas, 61 ¾ × 82 ⅞ inches (156.8 × 210.5 cm). Photo by Rob McKeever

The lighT touch is often the strongest gesture of all.

Helen Frankenthaler, 1962

AMCDHow do the exhibition and publication relate to each other and how are they different?

KSThe exhibition was 4,000 square feet, so it has fewer artists! The book allowed me to be more expansive, although there is a lot of overlap between the two. And, as always, an exhibition allowed for physical experience—and this work really was breathtaking in person—while a book,
 of course, allows you to spell out histories and ideas as well as include different voices. For example, there are six texts included in the publication that are authored by artists, in addition to six new in-depth essays from prominent scholars. It also includes a lot of great non-art imagery—a visual chronology that includes media imagery—that isn’t in the exhibition.

AMCdBoth the exhibition and publication cover a time span of over sixty years, from the 1950s through to artists working today. What are some themes that emerged in terms of the progression and development of ideas from each generation?

KSThe social quality of art making at different moments, as in the circle around Tibor de Nagy in the 1950s and in the feminist work of the 1970s and 1990s. The insistence that even seemingly impersonal abstraction is imbued with personal identity or personal feelings, for everyone, men included. The way that craft kept resurfacing, insisting on parity and also a mutual exchange with painting.

AMCDThe book begins in the 1950s, with the groundbreaking Tibor de Nagy Gallery “posse.” How was that gallery unique? What impact did it have on the generations that followed?

KSIt was unique as the reflection of its owners and their circle of friends and patrons. There was a sensibility and taste that was imaginative, open, and aristocratic in a way—intense and fantastic. It was not partisan in the rather tedious debates of the time about the modern versus the American, but perhaps legible as a gay, cosmopolitan sensibility. The gallery showed young moderns, but also decorative craft and beautiful historical objects. As far as its impact, it exhibited the work of women and gay male artists not always welcomed elsewhere, and championed literature as well as art. That was particularly important for the next generation, including people like Joe Brainard.

After Frankenthaler: An Interview with Katy Siegel

Helen Frankenthaler, Scene with Nude, 1952, oil and charcoal on canvas, 42 ¾ × 50 ¾ inches (108.6 × 128.9 cm). Photo by Rob McKeever

AMCDIn 1961 Morris Louis famously said Frankenthaler was a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” In 2013 Mary Weatherford said, “If anyone decides to make stain paintings, even now they have to consider Frankenthaler.” How is the way that contemporary artists embrace Frankenthaler’s legacy comparatively similar to or different from the way that the artists of the 1960s Color Field movement responded?

KSThat Louis quote is a bit of a backhanded compliment—it turns her into a midwife for history, rather than an inventor. That aside, the Color Field section of the show and the book is really different from the others: it evidences a narrowing, a critical orthodoxy, however strong the art itself. This is art that is made, to a certain extent, in the image of Clement Greenberg’s take on the meaning of color and material in painting, reducing it to purely optical or formal concerns. The other artists in the exhibition pick up the diversity, the permissiveness, and the social content of the 1950s, imbuing the stain with sex, psychology, and cultural reference.

AMCDIn the late 1960s and early 1970s artists became more political, even sometimes identifying as feminists or activists. This is distinctly different from the earlier generation of women artists such as Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell, who bristled at the idea of being called a feminist. How do you see these divergent subjects as connected?

KSThat earlier generation of women artists was
 not given the option of being feminists—and, even later in life, many were not interested in embracing that identity when it was on offer. Nonetheless, they faced the same issues as later generations, and enacted some of the same adaptations and solutions: playing both at femininity and masculinity as artificial roles, speaking to each other in private in a different manner than in public speech, and letting their work be filled with their own, unnamed sensibility. Female artists today are more likely to be able to say things out loud, but perhaps still run similar risks in the media and popular conceptions—being pinned down by categorical thinking about gender and identity.

AMCDIn 1991 Deborah Kass told a reviewer, “We’re in the middle of the worst recession since the ’70s,” adding, “women and people of color are getting attention. . . . It doesn’t cost anything to pay attention.” Do you feel that there was a shift in the 1990s that allowed a wider audience access to artists otherwise less recognized?

KSYes, but it didn’t go far enough. The backlash against the infuriatingly shorthand “political correctness” for parity for women, people of color, and the full range of sexual identity really kicked in. It is only now that these demands for equality are back, full force, and significantly, institutions are being forced to begin addressing those demands.

AMCDThere is a chapter in the book called “The Men’s Room.” What role have male artists had in continuing this legacy?

KSMen are, of course, as subject to gender identity as women are—theirs only seems invisible because it is the “normal” or dominant kind 
of subjectivity. The men in the show, like the women, play with socially determined meanings of masculinity and femininity, trying different roles and transgressing social expectations. The men sew, they fail to control their material, they emote, they display their sexuality, they craft.

AMCDDoes ambition clash with gender in this book? Has the relationship between gender and ambition changed since the 1950s?

KSAmy Sillman really gets this in her essay for the book, “House of Frankenthaler.” She recognizes in Frankenthaler a quality that she herself struggles with, the ability to make hugely ambitious and risky gestures with a confidence and authority—a lack of anxiety about the consequences and the details—that seems reserved for men in this culture. Putting that confidence together with the “feminine” is an amazing thing.

AMCDIf there could be only one thing that you could communicate through this exhibition and publication what would you want it to be?

KSThe fact that the history of art is always a social history, never just a history of style, and the enormously complicated nature of personal identity that exists in each and every work of art.

Artwork © 2015 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Image of artist Mary Weatherford in front of her artwork

Mary Weatherford: The Flaying of Marsyas

In conjunction with her exhibition The Flaying of Marsyas at Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice, Mary Weatherford discusses the featured paintings, which are directly inspired by Titian’s late, eponymous masterpiece of circa 1570–76 and reflect her enduring fascination with the painting.

Carol Armstrong and John Elderfield seated in front of a painting by Helen Frankenthaler

In Conversation
Carol Armstrong and John Elderfield

In conjunction with the exhibition Drawing within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s at Gagosian in New York, Carol Armstrong and John Elderfield discuss Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings and large-scale works on paper dating from 1990 to 1995.

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 102 color woodcut from 46 woodblocks

The Romance of a New Medium: Helen Frankenthaler and the Art of Collaboration

Inspired by the recent retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, William Davie writes about the artist’s innovative journey with printmaking. Davie illuminates Frankenthaler’s formative collaborations with master printers Tatyana Grosman and Kenneth Tyler.

Takashi Murakami cover and Andreas Gursky cover for Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2022 magazine

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2022

The Summer 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, with two different covers—featuring Takashi Murakami’s 108 Bonnō MURAKAMI.FLOWERS (2022) and Andreas Gursky’s V & R II (2022).

Mary Weatherford, The Flaying of Marsyas—4500 Triphosphor, 2021–22 (detail), Flashe and neon on linen, 93 × 79 inches (236.2 × 200.7 cm). Photo: Fredrik Nilsen Studio

Mary Weatherford: The Flaying of Marsyas

Coinciding with the 59th Venice Biennale, an exhibition at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice presents new paintings by Mary Weatherford inspired by Titian’s The Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1570–76). Francine Prose traces the development of these works.

Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne

In Conversation
Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne on Helen Frankenthaler

Broadcaster and art historian Katy Hessel; Matthew Holman, associate lecturer in English at University College London; and Eleanor Nairne, curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, discuss Helen Frankenthaler’s early training, the development of her signature soak-stain technique and subsequent shifts in style, and her connections to the London art world.

Helen Frankenthaler, Heart of London Map, steel sculpture

Helen Frankenthaler: A Painter’s Sculptures

On the occasion of four 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.

Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006), on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Summer 2021

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2021

The Summer 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006) on its cover.

Augurs of Spring

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.

Helen Frankenthaler, Cool Summer, 1962, oil on canvas, 69 ¾ × 120 inches (177.2 × 304.8 cm), Collection Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

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.

Mary Weatherford, Orion’s Belt, 2016, Flashe and neon on linen.

Mary Weatherford: Train Yards

Mary Weatherford speaks to Laura Hoptman about her new paintings, the Train Yard series. Begun in 2016, this body of work evokes the sights and sounds of railroads and night skies. The series will be shown for the first time in late 2020, in an exhibition at Gagosian, London.

A portrait of Betty Parsons surrounded by art.

Game Changer
Betty Parsons

Wyatt Allgeier pays homage to the renowned gallerist and artist Betty Parsons (1900–1982).