Today's Inspiration- Helen Frankenthaler

by - Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I have been thinking a lot about women who become defined by their partners lately, especially women who from all appearances were titans in their own right. One of  the most amazing ones is the painter Helen Frankenthaler, who passed away in December 2011. Frankenthaler is a pretty spectacular abstract painter (this coming from someone who mostly doesn't find abstract painting all that compelling) from the 50's who only got her due later in life, but her legacy is tied so much to her personal lives.

Helen Frankenthaler was one of the only female abstract expressionists in a decade where the most valuable quality in an artist was their masculine expression and angst. Women did not gain real cultural traction in the arts until the 60's, and even then, the battle was not really one. The most well-known female artists were married to famous artists, and even now, the readings of artists like Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner primarily concern themselves with the men these women were with (namely, Greenberg, Motherwell, and Pollock).

As the story goes, Clement Greenberg, the critic who defined abstract painting in the 50's, became "friends" (maybe an affair, maybe not. It depends who you ask) with Frankenthaler early in the 50's and introduced her style of paint application ("soak staining") to Pollock and Morris Louis, who both subsequently stole her ideas. Both of these artists were lauded by Greenberg, and they gained a lot of money and acclaim. Frankenthaler, on the other hand, struggled to get her work into galleries throughout the 50's, and was only included in Greenberg's Post- Painterly Abstraction show in 64 (his increasingly panicked response to minimalism) as a member of the "next generation" of abstract painters. This is a pretty harsh sting since the "first generation" were using some of her techniques.

Of course, this is just one perspective, and other people quietly write her off as one of Greenberg's protege's and a benefactor of his benevolent inclusion. Basically, that she only had any success because he introduced her.

Mountain and Sea, 1952 From
Frankenthaler's paintings are very beautiful, and they are often written off because of this beauty. Artists like Louis and Kenneth Noland cite her as being influential, but critics are dubious of whether the paintings are doing much beyond being pretty. That is, except for my beloved and fantastic Barbara Rose, who could see what she was doing was smartly tied to nature and human emotions because it was so expressive and open. God damn, how could you not love Barbara Rose? That lady is in my top ten inspirations. Frankenthaler also has a sort of ambiguous critical position because she was on the advisory board (and seemingly was supportive) when they cut the funding to the NEA.

Even if she was conservative (and just wrong) in her definition of art in old age, I think what she did in the 50's is still valuable and interesting in its feminine-ness, and I hope her legacy is more cemented as time goes on. She's the inspiration for the day.


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