The recent death of Helen Frankenthaler offers a fitting coda to 2011. Marked by a year that saw the passing of Lucien Freud, Cy Twombly, Roman Opalka and Pat Passloff, the death of another significant voice in post-war art impels rumination. Born in 1928 to well off New York professionals, Frankenthaler's paintings wistfully bridged Jackson Pollock's (macho, swaggering) drips for something softer and restrained. Without wadding too deeply into the 50's critical muck that surrounded her work, with talk of menstruation and decorative passive femininity, Frankenthaler's paintings were a distinctive, yes feminine, move away from the overly burly posturing that defined the super-charged atmosphere of AB-Ex New York. Professionally Frankenthaler helped usher in the 'Color Field' painters Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski while personally she dated Clement Greenberg (an important advocate for such painting) and was for a time married to Robert Motherwell.
Frankenthaler's death is a step further away from an ever-declining artistic position. In line with Twombly, Freud, Passloff and Opalka, Frankenthaler's art was formed by a remarkably consistent practice. Chained to abstraction, Frankenthaler, like Freud, Twombly, Opalka and Passloff, refused to stray from her hard won artistic thinking. Raised in a climate of ideology, political as well as artistic, Frankenthaler, and perhaps most people from her generation, needed to stake a claim. Her work, and the work of her recently deceased peers, is a part of a species of ever dwindling practices that is defined by a First Cause with deep roots in the after effects of the Second World War and mid-century cultural ideology. Whether abstraction, portraiture, numbers or graffiti, these artists felt the need to work through problems happened upon in their artistic youth. Presently artistic identity is fluid and malleable. How Frankenthaler, and her recently deceased peers, will be remembered hinges on how future artists come to believe in, or abandon, their own relationship to identity.
|Helen Frankenthaler 'Mountains and Sea' 1952|
|Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928)|
Robinson's Wrap, 1974
70 x 94 inches
Acrylic on canvas
|Helen Frankenthaler in her studio|