Lauren Mahony is an art historian based in New York. She worked as a curatorial assistant in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, before joining Gagosian, where she has worked on exhibitions and publications devoted to Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Brice Marden, David Reed, and others.
Helen Frankenthaler made her first sculptures in 1972, exactly twenty years after her major breakthrough with Mountains and Sea, a canvas whose soak-stain technique influenced her immediate peers in the early 1950s and charted a new direction for American painting. In essence, her method called attention to the picture surface by soaking thinned paint directly into the canvas rather than covering and concealing it. While it may seem that her goal was to highlight the flatness of her painting, this is only partially true: as art historian Bonnie Clearwater notes, “Frankenthaler has always maintained a tactile quality in her work that is sculptural and illusionistic.”1 While her interest in illusionistic space, along with her habit of working from all angles on a canvas placed on the floor, seems to readily lend itself to making three-dimensional works—and she certainly desired to do so—it would take over two decades for her to tackle this new medium in earnest.
That Frankenthaler’s first such works would be made of welded steel was predictable. David Smith—the primary innovator of that revolutionary method among sculptors in the Abstract Expressionist circle—was a close friend of Frankenthaler’s from 1951 until his untimely death, in 1965.2 She knew his work well, and Smith invited her to work in his studio, but the opportunity never transpired. Both artists met the British sculptor Anthony Caro on his first trip to the United States, in the fall of 1959. That trip would prove hugely influential for Caro, leading him to abandon figural sculpture for large-scale, abstract constructions in painted steel. Frankenthaler and Caro remained close friends, and in 1972, after years of considering the idea of working in each other’s studios, Frankenthaler was the first to act on the opportunity, proposing that she visit Caro in mid-July, following a holiday in Ischia, Italy.
In letters to Caro leading up to that visit, Frankenthaler expressed both excitement and nervousness about the prospect, referring to herself more than once as a “novice.” She wrote, eagerly, “As you can tell, my whole sense of work and joy and new enterprise is geared to trying, observing, working within your studio framework.”3 She approached the trip with the same seriousness and drive she brought to her painting practice, and even considered bringing a studio assistant from New York, in part so that he could learn the fabrication methods should she want to continue the project upon her return home.4 Ultimately, Caro set Frankenthaler up with his own former studio assistant, Charlie Hendy, who facilitated the fabrication of the works and took her to a junkyard outside London to source materials. Despite her nervousness about the prospect of making sculpture, Frankenthaler felt comfortable in London, having visited the city over the years; she even stayed in the same hotel as she had on her first visit there, as a nineteen-year-old traveling with her friend Gaby Rodgers—“full circle,” she noted on her return.5
Frankenthaler worked steadily over a two-week period and took inspiration from her immediate surroundings, a direct and spontaneous approach akin to how she painted. Even as a self-described novice, her choices revealed her confidence and her eye: Caro observed later on, “You work so freely and intuitively.”6 Matisse Table was inspired by her seeing the eponymous object in a poster of the French modernist’s Large Red Interior, Vence (1948) that hung in Caro’s office; Heart of London Map was based on Francis Chichester’s map of the same name, a copy of which is in Frankenthaler’s archive.7
Smith’s legacy was also prominent in the studio: after his death, Caro had received some of his materials, specifically what Frankenthaler called his “doughnut-discs with wobbly edges.”8 Frankenthaler incorporated them into four works: Envelope, Pedestal, David’s Chariot, and Brice (For Charlie). However, the vertical, open, and linear nature of many of the ten sculptures she produced offers visual connections to the paintings she had recently been making, into which she had reintroduced the use of drawn lines.9 The antennalike appendages of Heart of London Map closely resemble similar forms in paintings such as Sesame (1970) and Chairman of the Board (1971), and also of one made shortly after the sculptures, Chill Factor. The latter painting was completed in February 1973, just two months after the sculptures were first exhibited, at the André Emmerich Gallery, New York, in December 1972.
The following two texts offer insights from both artists into the making of this unique body of work in a moment of transition and experimentation in Frankenthaler’s career; the experience fulfilled a long-standing creative desire on her part and would inform what she did next. Caro’s was written in 2006, on the occasion of an exhibition of nine of these sculptures at New York’s Knoedler Gallery. At that time, with the exception of Matisse Table, none of the works had been seen publicly since 1974, when seven of them were installed outdoors at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.10 Frankenthaler’s recollection was written in 1975. Although she stated then, and in an earlier lecture given at Swarthmore,11 that she was not sure when she would next make sculpture, in six months she would begin to do so, working at large scale in clay with Margie Hughto in Syracuse, New York.
Frankenthaler’s Sculpture: A Reflection
Anthony Caro, 2006
In 1959, when my wife Sheila and I first visited America, we knew no one. We had been given some introductions and the New York art world warmly welcomed us, made us feel at home. It was at the art critic Dore Ashton’s apartment that I first met Helen Frankenthaler and Bob Motherwell. They gave me a lift uptown in their car. When they learned I was an artist from England, in New York for the first time, they said, “We’ll give you a party.” They threw a dinner party with about a hundred guests at their East 94th Street home. I found myself seated at a small table beside Hedy Lamarr (heroine of the famous film Ekstase), with David Smith on her other side, and Franz Kline at the next table. The stars of the silver screen together with the stars of Abstract Expressionism!
Over the years, we got to know Helen well. We came to enjoy her enthusiasm, her risk-taking, her intelligence, her humour. We had talked about her trying her hand at sculpture; in May 1972, I received a letter:
Thanks for your nice note. The best part of it was the last sentence. How about that plan to make sculpture together?!!!!!!!!!
How would the last two weeks in July be for you, for me to get oriented as a novice? I will be going to Italy from here July 1 through 12 and could come directly to London from the 12th to the 28th. Is this good for you? If so, I will plan around it. So let me know as soon as convenient.
Love to you both.
I don’t dare talk more about it, less it’s jinxed. But I’m so serious, and can’t tell you how much I hope it works out.
My studio in London is in an old piano factory in Camden Town, and I invited Helen to work there. I hired Charlie Hendy to be her helper. He had recently retired from being my assistant, and while she was working on one end of the big studio space I planned to make my own sculptures at the other end with his young successor, Pat Cunningham.
Helen arrived, ready to set to work, but with no experience in steel. Her approach was straightforward. She would focus on steel parts and have them welded together in accordance with the direction she had in mind. From the time of Rodin, many of the best sculptures have been made by painters. Picasso is quoted as saying, “Sculpture is the best comment that painters can make on anything.” An inherent part of a sculptor’s training is craft; craft is demanded for carving in wood or stone, casting in plaster and in metal, even for fabrication in steel. But the sculptor’s attention to craft can tend to put a brake on a clear approach to the art itself. The painters bypass all this and find a way—any way at all—to be direct.
Helen worked when she felt ready; she stopped when she was tired. She seldom needed to make adjustments. She did not agonize and had complete confidence in her “take.” As a result, her work has a breathtaking freshness. I remember her asking Charlie about some steel frames, stored higgledy-piggledy in the roof part of the studio: “Can I use those?” “Yes.” “Then weld them together as they are.” When they were brought down, assembled as one unit, and set up as Helen intended, they became Ceiling Horses. Again and again she surprised me; her directness and her certainty were an inspiration. Over that fortnight Helen spent a lot of time with Sheila and me. She later wrote:
I often think of the conversation we had at dinner, the three of us in London, and now I look back on it with the joy of having somehow established a rapport and friendship that is rare and wonderful. It was there all the time of course, but never had that chance to be cemented and meaningful. So much of it, apart from the clichés of empathy, interest, values had to do with work and feelings, and feelings about work. You know many of us close to David [Smith] often used to feel slightly embarrassed by his sort of generous bravado when he was in the dumps or lonely, or wanton with himself: proclaiming work, keep working—and everyone knowing yes that’s true, that’s the whole truth and essence and savior but not all. And these days for me, I rely profoundly on an inner insistence that work and friendship—when they’re both from the gut, transcend the devils. I was able to silhouette that thought much more after the London visit, thanks to you. . . . Wasn’t it wonderful? Tony, something really was happening in that glorious studio of yours, and I think we’ll realize that increasingly. I’m curious to see how the work will look when I get a fresh eye on it in NY. . . . I miss that ambiance, beautiful Charlie, that killing tea made in the john, all, my smock. . . .
I don’t plan to travel too much, or teach, at all. Plan to continue painting a lot. At the moment I have no strong view on having to make sculpture. I think I will again, but I don’t know when. On this round I feel I thoroughly experienced one urge—and result—that I’d been hoping for, for decades. I don’t know yet about the need or desire or wherewithal for the next session. It’s interesting to think about the hows and whys and possibilities of painters making sculpture and at what periods for them it happens and works.
By the end of her stay Helen had made a group of beautiful pieces. And she had won all hearts. To Charlie, she sent a dozen bottles of scotch. One night, sampling them, he called her in New York to suggest that he emigrate to the USA to become her full-time assistant. When Charlie died, Helen wrote to his son:
Dear Mr. Hendy,
I have the fondest memories of your father and his cheerful consistent help to me when we worked together at Anthony Caro’s studio in London. You were kind to write me that he received such immense pleasure from being on my mailing list of catalogues and announcements.
Please accept my heartfelt condolences.
20 September 1989
Of course later Helen insisted that I come to New York to make paintings in her studio:
What about the reverse? Remember the seed of invitation I planted to use my space, Tony, even though you shyly put it down. Think.
When will I see you both and/or hear from you? Come over and use the top floor guest suite chez moi. Sheila, how’s the work going? I’m curious to know what follows our exchange in your studio. Give a hint as to plans, etc. How was your vacation—kids, school, beautiful garden.
Be well, keep in touch and again thanks from the heart.
In the end I did work in her studio for about three weeks. On the very first day she generously made available to me her full-time painting assistant, her tools, canvas, paints and her own help, her superb eye. But that’s another story. . . .
The works in this show take me back thirty-five years. It was a unique experience to share my workspace with a great artist, who was—is—utterly clear about her direction. She was open, friendly, but always self-contained; she worked fearlessly with new materials in a new environment and produced pieces of the highest quality. It was achieved by addressing the work in her own way, with single-minded focus. The evidence is the sculptures.
Helen Frankenthaler, May 28, 1975
I had thought about making sculpture for a long time. Over the years, every time I went up to visit David Smith at Bolton Landing, we’d plan a potential visit of mine, to stay and experiment with sculpture. As a painter, I’ve always been involved in developing and enjoying my eye for sculpture. Wherever I’ve lived, I wanted sculpture around me—as much as painting—but I had never tried making it myself. Considering my fantasies of what I wanted to make, the materials, general wherewithal, the necessity of spaces, help, “landscape,” and time, it seemed an enormous undertaking. I never got around to it before David died. He encouraged me to try sculpture when we used to exchange and banter in our studios; said he would make it all available. I would have, eventually.
Later, on-and-off, Tony Caro and I touched on my interest, and suddenly the moment seemed right. On a postcard from London, he just said something like “Name a date!” And I postcarded back, gave dates, and off I went in July 1972 (I would stay for a couple of weeks), full steam ahead.
I knew I’d have a sort of streak of work, spinning it out. I stayed at the Russell Hotel. I’d go to Tony’s studio after breakfast, work, come back to the hotel in the afternoon, unwind, eat dinner there (I became an “authority” on nightly BBC TV programs in my room), and would repeat the same invigorating and exhausting routine again the next day.
Tony assigned a former assistant of his, Charlie Hendy, to help me. We hit it off. He was marvelous, rare, and he really felt sensitively what I needed, without insistence; a sturdy angel kind of helper, who guided me on materials and answered my impossible questions and impatient demands, never interfering or projecting. We produced.
Tony was a “lord”—making lots of materials and machines and possibilities available. We were never in each other’s way, but gently and firmly aware of each other working or mulling. (I got used to strong tea there—at first it looked to me like coffee.) Some of the materials and parts were actually from, or reminiscent of, Bolton—tank tops, I-beams, and those familiar wheels (doughnut-discs with wobbly edges). My feeling was, of course, “They’re David’s, but so what? That doesn’t mean another artist can’t use his wheels and take off from there.” Actually, those wheels were the only specific objects from Terminal Iron Works that I incorporated in my work.
But I also wanted to draw and concoct my own sculpture that came out of painting—only the difference was, there were no edges or corners to cope with, but new considerations of space and air and weight. I would say to Charlie or Tony, for example, “Supposing I want to slap this here” (and I’d chalk out a lot of my own shapes on some metal I liked) “onto this spoke here, would it hold? Can we try to cut out that silhouette and perch it on that?” Then we’d try it and it would work, or not, or I’d add to it or crop it, often with “millimeter” precision, or rearrange the parts. Frequently, the problems and workings of painting and sculpture are the same. The materials, Charlie, Tony’s atmosphere and generosity—all of it was charged and intensely active, and we drove each other.
Matisse Table came out of those strong tea breaks in Tony’s little office. There was a frayed Matisse poster announcement stuck on the wall and I’d stare at it. Great. It was a painting of the interior of a room with all the familiar Matissean objects we know. Having made several sculptures by then (and lots pending, in the works) and feeling more familiar with the vocabulary, I wanted to branch out a bit. I wanted to make my version of that Matisse table and use it as a taking-off point to develop my piece—to zero in on the whole painting of the interior, the table, as my sculpture.
I then had to find and devise the parts, and also allow the sculpture, as an independent piece, to take off on its own. But I needed other parts, materials, so Charlie took me on an expedition to a junkyard, on the outskirts of London, for me “to hell and gone.” It was a Himalaya of junk-pile mountains. We climbed, and picked, and hauled, and shook rust off parts, and brooded, and finally got our load together, with begged-for local muscle help. (They weighed you in your truck when you entered and when you left, to see what to charge.) I found the smallest elements of Matisse Table there, as well as the “tabletop” itself, and other parts, some of which I used on other sculptures.
Ten After All literally meant that I’d brought off nine pieces, had a tenth in mind, couldn’t get it to work, thought I’d scrap it, then got back with it, and it into me, and finally there were ten, after all. Those then were almost all I had in me for this time around and that last piece, Ten After All, and Ceiling Horses (which I spotted tucked away on the studio ceiling one day, stretching my muscle-bound neck) shook me back to painting again. I was ready to go home. But I have an open pocket in my mind that says of course I’ll eventually do more sculpture. I’ve been trying to get Tony to do a return match and paint in my studio. At this point, I don’t know when or in what place I’ll do more sculpture.
Like my painting, I guess all the sculptures look “different,” but they all possess the same genes. In a way, they are my pictures in the round. I didn’t do extensive sketches, just doodled ideas on the scratch paper from my pocketbook. But with these in hand or mind, the thing got born really on the spot.
Back in New York, Charlie used to call me from London asking if he could come over to work for me here to make more sculpture. I’d explain I had no plan or desire for that in my studio at the time. But it’s a thought that plants a seed. We all left each other with wonderful feelings.
1Bonnie Clearwater, Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper (North Miami: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003), p. 16.
2The connections between David Smith’s and Helen Frankenthaler’s works were the subject of an exhibition at Craig F. Starr Gallery, New York, in 2014. See Helen Frankenthaler and David Smith (New York: Craig F. Starr Gallery, 2014).
3Frankenthaler, letters to Anthony Caro, April 27, 1972, and May 24, 1972. Courtesy the Anthony Caro Centre/Barford Sculptures.
4See Caro, postcard to Frankenthaler, postmarked June 12, 1972. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York.
5Frankenthaler, letter to Caro, May 24, 1972.
6Caro, letter to Frankenthaler, November 2, 1972. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York.
7Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York.
8Frankenthaler, “Making Sculpture,” May 28, 1975. First published in Frankenthaler Sculpture, exh. cat. (New York: Knoedler & Company, 2006), p. 8. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York. After Smith’s death, in 1965, the painter Kenneth Noland purchased the steel that remained in the possession of his estate, ultimately shipping thirty-seven tons of it to Caro in London. See Caro interviewed in “Last Hours with David Smith,” Web of Stories, available online at https://www.webofstories.com/play/anthony.caro/17 (accessed March 21, 2021). The discs Frankenthaler used can also be seen in Smith’s V.B. XXII (1963), made from steel Smith acquired during a trip to Voltri, Italy, in 1962.
9Frankenthaler’s various uses of line through several decades of her painting practice were the subject of a 2016 exhibition at Gagosian, Beverly Hills, Line into Color, Color into Line: Helen Frankenthaler, Paintings, 1962–1987.
10Matisse Table had been shown in the group show Art in Space: Some Turning Points, Detroit Institute of Arts, May 15–June 24, 1973.
11See Richard Osterweil, “Mysterious Sculptures Explained,” The Phoenix (Swarthmore, Pennsylvania) 94, no. 48 (May 3, 1974), p. 1.
Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976, Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, June 17–September 18, 2021; Helen Frankenthaler: A Sculpture and a Selection of Works on Paper, Gagosian, Davies Street, London, June 17–August 27, 2021; In the Studio: Helen Frankenthaler, Tate, London, November 18, 2019–November 2021; Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, September 15, 2021–April 17, 2022
All artwork © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photos: Jeffrey Sturges