Few artists in the New York School of the past 70 years have had as privileged a life and background as Helen Frankenthaler, the painter who died yesterday at the age of 83 after a long illness. She was a glamourous figure in the New York art world and was lovers for some years of Clement Greenberg and then married painter Robert Motherwell years later. She painted some very beautiful paintings. A few were even great.
But there is a tragic dimension to her that rests on the general consensus that she wasn't a great artist. Despite getting all the official plaudits and medals this country could bestow on an artist, Frankenthaler never got what she probably most wanted--the recognition of the art world as to her centrality to the evolution of painting after Abstract Expressionism.
Her main problem was this: the two most important critical champions of Color Field painting (Greenberg and Freid) rated her below the boys. In Greenberg's canon--after Pollock and Newman came Louis, Noland and then the painter he considered the greatest since Pollock, Jules Olitski. For Fried, the canon ran from Pollock to Louis, Noland, Stella, Olitski and Caro. In neither man's writings do we ever get anything about the greatness of Helen Frankenthaler. She will forever be the bridge-- the bridge from Pollock to the D.C. boys--Louis and Noland.
And truth be told, she didn't consistently paint anything as good or original as Louis' Veils or as perfect as Noland's Circles or Chevrons, or as novel as Olitski's controversial spray paintings.
When the Color Field movement ebbed in the late 60s, abstract painting had entered into the more reductive anti-color strictures of Ryman, Martin, Baer and Mangold. Louis had died, Noland would eventually become irrelevant and Olitski reinvented himself as the impasto king (eschewing color for surface) and bringing all the other former Color Fielders with him--Poons, Bannard and others. Helen was left all alone. She never abandoned the basic vocabulary she established with Mountains and Seas 60 years ago.
I'm no believer in the necessity of the romantic idea of the impoverished or tormented artist, but she could have been much better. Louis painted in the tiny living room of his little house. He had to figure out how to make large works in that space. With little ventilation, he sucked on the paint vapors for years until they gave him lung cancer and he died. Helen's studio was bigger than Louis' house. She could have anything she wanted. Perhaps her life was too easy and her work became too easy.