The relatively modest exhibition of early work by Helen Frankenthaler -- she was born at the end of 1928 and made the exhibition's title work, Mountains and Sea, in 1952 at age 24 -- features 15 paintings that the formalist critic Clement Greenberg would call pure optical paintings. They were to his mind the logical conclusion of the development of postwar American art, in which art was purged of all theatrical (read Abstract Expressionist) content in favor of a pure abstract focus on the elements of painting's material reality. Color, the flow of the pigment, the shape of the support, such were the elements that Greenberg thought could give painting a vestige of utopian autonomy in the corrupted modern world.
Frankenthaler is widely credited with originating the pouring technique that Morris Louis was to bring to a new level of color abstraction. Frankenthaler was more intuitive and open to models of composition based on nature and organic progression, however. For nearly four decades, she has created stain paintings with what the artist herself describes as "joyous abandon." This exhibition records some of the first steps in a long development of ideas and the successful creation of a major body of work.
Mountains and Sea was a major breakthrough for Frankenthaler. It also represented a breakthrough in the larger world for it predicted where painting might go and what the possibilities were for abstraction beyond Abstract Expressionism. Her greatest admiration, like many of her generation, was reserved for Jackson Pollock, a debt that is made apparent in the detailed catalogue essay written by Julia Brown. It is the 1951 show of Pollock's black and white paintings at the Betty Parsons Gallery that had the profound influence on pushing Frankenthaler to translate her own sense of fluidity and spontaneity into the staining and pouring of pure pigment onto canvas.
Pollock originated the stained line in post-war art, but it was Frankenthaler alone who first was able to expand upon the implications of this calligraphy. Her entire canvas field became a conscious awakening to the power of color performing. Such works as Western Dream (1957), Before the Caves (1958) and Mother Goose Melody (1959) epitomize that sensation of color taking form, coming into being and creating a location.
The technique of staining is quite opposite to the more rough and macho styles of paint construction dictated by the Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Kline. But, as Brown's catalogue points out, Rothko and Newman's early experiments with biomorphic abstraction presage Frankenthaler's themes and method. As usual, the younger artist proceeds by adopting methods cast off by her mentors. From these biomorphic images Frankenthaler learned to apply and permit accidents and asymmetry to be among the rules for making a composition work.
Despite Greenberg's search for pure opticality, subject matter is always at hand in Frankenthaler's work. The suggestion of a particular landscape in Basque Beach (1958) seems prescient, now that the Guggenheim has opened a branch in the Basque capital of Bilbao. The linear structure and pastel colors of Interior (1957) recall the setting for Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880-81), an equally luscious representation of relaxation and pleasure. Not simply formal exercises, Frankenthaler's abstractions are suggestive of a mood or perception, and the final resolve is that of a mental or physical place to be.
Despite the esthetic and historical interest of the works in this exhibition, the installation itself seems rather unnuanced. Once again, the Guggenheim's interest seems to be largely given over to name recognition. For example why consign the major opus Mountains and Sea, the raisonne d'etre of the entire show, to a side wall? And why squeeze big paintings into small spaces? Works such as Open Wall (1953) and Madridscape (1959), illustrated in the catalogue but absent from the show, hint at Frankenthaler's sense of a panoramic conception for her work: big fields of color that need to breathe in big fields of canvas.
Altogether absent from this show was any didactic material or photographic documentation that might assist the viewer with the history and placement of these works in the developments of the New York School in the midst of the Cold War, or the milieu in which Frankenthaler lived and worked.
Still, the Guggenheim is to be congratulated for mounting the exhibition, not least because Color Field painting has been so long out of fashion critically and stylistically. Perhaps the museum's rumored curatorial budget-crunch will have the positive result of smaller, more focused and digestible shows such as this one, rather than the recent cavalcade of overblown retrospectives and continental blockbusters. For a museum whose designer was a classic Modernist, the motto "less is more" should be a trusted guide to future programming.
"After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-59" at the Guggenheim Museum, Jan. 15-May 3, 1998.