Artist Helen Frankenthaler’s mystique seems to be partly based on staying out of the limelight. Among art world insiders, she is almost as well known for living a privileged, quiet life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as for her lyrical abstract canvases. But since last June, when Frankenthaler’s retrospective exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she has been in the public eye almost constantly.
The traveling exhibition, which opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sunday, set off an avalanche of profiles and reviews in newspapers and magazines. The 61-year-old artist has also turned up in less predictable forums. As a member of the National Endowment for the Arts advisory council, she responded last July to the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe’s and Andres Serrano’s work by advocating “quality control.” In a New York Times commentary, Frankenthaler took the unpopular position of worrying that the council might have begun to “spawn an art monster” while “endorsing experimentation.”
More recently, photographs of a youthful Frankenthaler and accounts of her associations with New York School artists cropped up in a controversial new biography on Jackson Pollock by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. And the February issue of Art & Antiques magazine features Frankenthaler cheerfully posing in a Rolex ad.
Has la grande dame , arguably America’s most famous living female artist, let down her guard? Probably not. In Los Angeles for the opening of her show at LACMA, Frankenthaler was very much the well-bred, immaculately groomed woman who is unfailingly polite while measuring what she says to the press. She formed sentences slowly, answered questions concisely and almost never picked up an invitation to expand on any particular point.
Painful as this public process may be, Frankenthaler seems to suffer none of the tyranny that is often attributed to artists’ retrospectives. “I don’t think a retrospective is a finality, it’s a summing up, an opportunity to see where you have been and where you will go from there,” she said.
“I noticed both with my first retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969, and the current one that I made many discoveries. They had to do with the continuity of my painting but they also gave a clue to things that could be developed further.”
This second retrospective opened a full 20 years after the first, and Frankenthaler is already looking forward to the third. “I hope there will be a next one,” she said.
The youngest daughter of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court judge, Frankenthaler attended the Dalton school in New York, where she studied with Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, and Bennington College in Vermont. As a young painter in New York, she was championed by the influential critic Clement Greenberg, with whom she was romantically involved. Later married to painter Robert Motherwell, she forged a distinctive identity and has never wavered from her course.
Frankenthaler’s “soak-stain” abstractions of the early ‘50s are considered a link between Abstract Expressionism and the color-field movement of the ‘60s. Picking up on Pollock’s energetically dripped paintings, she began to pour pigment on her canvases and let it soak into the fabric, creating soft-edged bursts of pastel color.
Frankenthaler’s retrospective at the County Museum of Art includes about 40 works done between 1952 and 1988. The show begins with her most famous early painting, “Mountains and Sea” (a pale 1952 work that looked like a paint rag to some observers but impressed critic Greenberg and artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis as a breakthrough), and ends with the ominously dark “Casanova” of 1988.
In an era when art changes almost as often as clothing styles, Frankenthaler seems unconcerned about being up-to-date. Securely rooted in Abstract Expressionism, the style that established American art on an international stage, she values a historical view of art. “Young artists should have an idea of the importance of Abstract Expressionism, just as I should have a sense of my heritage. I think the importance of Abstract Expressionism has to be a major consideration in where art went from there,” she said.
As for where she thinks art actually has gone, Frankenthaler is diplomatically silent, saying only that much current work is “fashion.” She also prefers not to expound on the artists and works that influenced her. “Paintings speak for themselves, the good ones,” she said, then ticked off a list: Pollock, Motherwell, Noland, Louis, David Smith, Anthony Caro, Adolph Gottlieb, “early Willem de Kooning” and “certain paintings” by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman.
Greenberg, who supported these artists’ work, is a great critic, Frankenthaler thinks. “Everything he has written is extremely valuable, and it is written in such a way that will hold up well into the future. You can’t say that about very many writers,” she said.
Naifeh’s and Smith’s biography of Pollock takes a dissenting view of Greenberg. “I haven’t read the book thoroughly, but I think it is unfortunately dedicated to entertainment rather than factual history. I always slightly cringe at the idea that Van Gogh, Gauguin and now Pollock are material for mega-movies. They should be represented by their best work,” she said.
The Frankenthaler retrospective will be at LACMA through April 22, then travel to the Detroit Institute of Art, June 11 through Sept. 2.
The Detroit appearance doubtless will call for another round of interviews, but Frankenthaler has her mind on other projects now. She recently signed three new prints produced at Tyler Graphics in Mount Kisco, N.Y., an April show of her recent works of paper is scheduled at Manhattan’s Andre Emmerich Gallery and she is working on a catalogue raisonne of her graphics that she hopes to complete in 1991.