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Helen Frankenthaler

EBB AND FLOW

by Charlie Finch
 
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Helen Frankenthaler, who joined the majority this morning, was another one of those painters who, like the recently deceased George Tooker, basically made one painting.

This was Mountains and Sea (1952), from which humble beginnings came stained canvas and poured paint and the brief glories of the Washington Color School. Clearly inspired by Arshile Gorky, not to mention Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, for such a radical painting it remains a conservative visual experience, invoking watercolor before anything else. Its significance one supposes lies in its introduction of a feminine process -- flow -- to the masculine myth of Abstract Expressionism, a losing battle from a dead era.

Mountains and Sea was very much the child of Helen (b. 1928) and Clement Greenberg (b. 1909), and marked the beginning of Greenberg’s reign over generations of New York painting, which devolved in the 1970s into an orgy of formalist mediocrity. It evokes the beach and the Hamptons, changing the topography of that place and time from a blue-collar world of potato fields to a lush, compromised Eden. The painting also served as a kind of safety net for New York museum curators who might otherwise have blanched at the radical awareness of Barnett Newman, or even Mark Rothko.

And it inspired so many lazy imitations in studios across the world, including that of Frankenthaler herself. She certainly worked it for a lifetime. When you saw her in an ad for some luxury product like a watch, Mountains and the Sea always seemed to be in the background, if only in the imagination.

So stain on in eternity, Helen, and let the rest of us be damned.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).