Powerful Pulp

Helen Frankenthaler's paintings in a mundane medium only strengthen her place in the pantheon

After assuring the desk attendant and the first of three omnipresent security guards that I was equipped only with pencils, not the dreaded ink pens, I made my way into what turned out to be one of the most daring exhibitions I've ever seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in North Miami: "Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper (1949-2002)."

At first it was a little jarring to find myself amid the 80 or so paintings that make up the show, a sweeping retrospective of works by the internationally acclaimed Helen Frankenthaler, who's now in her mid-70s. MoCA is an institution that prides itself on showcasing cutting-edge, even extreme, art, which almost always includes installations and/or sculptures and very often films and videos. At a typical MoCA show, you're quite likely to hear the sounds of some mechanized installation or the soundtrack to a film or video off in the distance, long before you actually get to the source. Not so with this Frankenthaler exhibition, which encourages contemplative silence as you make your way through more than half a century's worth of paintings.

And the paintings are on paper, not canvas. As someone who had associated Frankenthaler with her oversize, more or less abstract-expressionist canvases, I was delightfully surprised to see what extraordinary results she gets using the seemingly mundane medium of paper. Frankenthaler experimented to great effect with "staining" unprimed canvases by pouring diluted pigment onto them -- as in the landmark 1952 oil Mountains and Sea, which influenced both Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland -- and the technique turned out to be even more radical on the more absorbent medium of paper. (Since it's on canvas, that painting isn't included here, although there's a spiritual twin, Great Meadows, from the year before, created with watercolor and synthetic polymer.)

Huge imaginative leaps, taken effortlessly
Huge imaginative leaps, taken effortlessly

But "Paintings on Paper" isn't daring just because it's an exhibition of, well, paintings on paper. It's also notable because it's a large-scale show by one of the most prominent female artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. In much the same way her contemporary Lee Krasner was overshadowed by a more celebrated spouse, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler was once eclipsed by her fellow, and more famous, abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, to whom she was married from 1958 to 1971. An untitled painting/collage in the show alludes to that relationship.

Unlike Krasner, however, whose reputation has never equaled that of Pollock, Frankenthaler has more than held her own over the years, to the point that she's now pretty much as well known as Motherwell, who died in 1991. "Paintings on Paper" only confirms her status in the pantheon of abstract expressionism, alongside those who influenced her (Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko) as well as those whom she influenced.

Early on there are two almost monochromatic pieces from 1949, one in pencil, the other in mixed media, that display the strong cubist influence Frankenthaler was exposed to when she studied with Wallace Harrison at Bennington College in Vermont. But by the early 1950s, Frankenthaler seemed to have fully succumbed to abstract impressionism. The Sightseers (1951), with its bold black lines and crayon scrawls, could almost be mistaken for a de Kooning from the same era -- such as the famous The Attic, painted two years earlier.

But it wasn't long before Frankenthaler's sources became much less obvious. Her Drawing After Degas Bronze (1958), based on a small sculpture from Frankenthaler's own art collection, reduces the Degas to its most elemental lines. (The drawing is included in the exhibition catalog but not in the show itself.) Fabritius Bird (1960) was inspired by a postcard reproduction of Carel Fabritius' 1654 painting The Goldfinch, although Frankenthaler takes only the basic shapes and recasts them as blurred abstract forms. And in last year's From the Master, she lifts only the vaguest hint of the light playing off the nose in a Rembrandt self-portrait from 1659 and sets it afloat in a sea of deep reds. With Ruth's Manet, from the same year, she collages a postcard reproduction of a Manet still life onto the paper and uses acrylic to extend the imagery beyond the card's border.

These oblique homages are among the most satisfying in modern art, because they acknowledge their sources while simultaneously transforming them, in some cases almost beyond recognition. They're evidence of the huge imaginative leaps Frankenthaler takes with seeming effortlessness.

The aforementioned stain effects are startlingly dramatic. In several pieces from the early 1960s, the pigment bleeds onto the paper surrounding simple forms and geometric shapes. A few years later, in the "Possibilities Series," she experiments with leaving vast portions of the paper black, with the color pushed to the edges and corners of the image.

Still later, beginning in the mid-1970s, Frankenthaler goes to the opposite extreme, covering every square inch of the paper with paint, sometimes dragging a contrasting shade of paint across portions of the surface in bold smears, sometimes applying subtle shapes and squiggles as accents. She continued to tinker with these techniques through the rest of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.

In the past few years, Frankenthaler has turned more or less to color-field painting. Some of these near-monochromatic works feature barely modulated expanses of color, as in the "Lighthouse Series," in which thin dark lines suggest distant horizons rather than lighthouses. Port of Call and Destination, both from last year, are almost totally black, with only the faintest hints of horizon.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Frankenthaler's body of work as represented by this retrospective is her fidelity to a style that she has made completely her own. It's as if she devoured abstract expressionism 50 years ago, spat out what didn't suit her purposes, and proceeded to develop a personal style. She's continually taking it in different directions, experimenting with various techniques, refining -- and somehow she always seems to come full circle, or at least close to where she started out. "Paintings on Paper" chronicles that amazing process, one that continues to this day.

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