Helen Frankenthaler

Up the elevator whooshes to the fifth floor of an East 57th Street building in the center of Manhattan's art world. The elevator opens on a dark, discreet, unpeopled corridor. At the end of the corridor loom the truffle-colored double doors of the Andre Emmerich Gallery. They are locked. There is a bell.

You ring for admission and if you are a prospective buyer, or have made an appointment to view a painting, the doors swing open. They reveal a giant red light of a painting that stops you in your tracks with its beauty: It glows bright and bigger than life, 7 by 17 feet, on one white wall. Walking up to it is like stepping into the vortex of a huge ruby, full of pulsing light: bursts and glints and streaks of rouge red, plum, scarlet and scarlet's darker sister, of garnet, cranberry, brick red, maroon, all luminous as though seen through a jeweler's loupe, interspersed with shards of light in other colors: black, powder blue, gold. In one corner is the dark, attenuated signature of its creator, Helen Frankenthaler, the woman who art critic Barbara Rose says "changed painting" through her color-stained canvases as an Abstract Expressionist. This painting, acrylic on canvas, is titled "Carousel." Its price tag: $50,000.

None of the Frankenthalers are for sale in a major retrospective of her graphic works which has just opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington. The exhibit of over 90 final proofs and prints spans almost 20 years of her career, and includes woodcuts, lithographs, offset, intaglio, and relief techniques. Although Frankenthaler's fame rests on her painting, the exhibit includes work which she herself describes as being as good as any of her paintings.

Foremost is the prize of the show, a joyous woodblock titled "Essence Mulberry," which she did at Tyler Graphics.

The original color came from the juice of owner Ken Tyler's mulberry tree. The mulberries were ripe, and as she has described: "We had a large pail of the crimson juice which we could dip into and have at the studio. I loved that color. The print itself wasn't made with the actual mulberry juice but with a tint that I mixed that was almost identical. . . ."

The sluices of crimson, gold, orange, rose, cobalt, and tan that mark "Essence Mulberry" are on the cover of a new book, "Helen Frankenthaler Prints: 1961-1979," just published by Harper & Row. The book, technically a "catalogue raisonne," was written by Thomas Krens, incoming director of Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass., and director of the artist-in-residence program which organized the exhibit, along with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. (Partial support also comes from the National Endowment for the Arts.) The show, which began in Williamstown, moves from Washington to Birmingham, Ala., and Toledo, Ohio, then finally to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts next fall.

Before the exhibit opened in Washington, Miss Frankenthaler agreed to an interview at her streamlined brownstone on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

The ideal Helen Frankenthaler interview would be poured, not typed. It would flow. The high priestess of the "soak-stain" technique broke with centuries of convention in art when she decided in the early '60s to leave the easel and pour her paint directly on an unprimed or untreated canvas (usually cotton duck) placed on the floor, allowing the colors to ebb and flow as her creative impulse dictated. The oil paint, thinned with turpentine, then stained the canvas until fabric and paint were one, drenched with characteristic Fra kenthaler colors that glow like stained glass with an inner stratum of light.

Because of her technique and the huge size of her paintings, Frankenthaler physically works inm the painting, as a dancer would work on a stage. To understand how carefully, how precisely and painstakingly, she works at her immense, luminous paintings, you must try to interview her.

In a Frankenthaler interview, every word is a brushstroke and it must be just the right stroke, the right color, the right line. She is an artist to the core. She will control the picture, whether it be one painted with words or acrylics.

Here she is on the subject of how she hangs her paintings, which are not limited as easel paintings would be by a predetermined top or bottom, since she is painting from within them on the floor:

"When I decide to hang a picture, I hang it in the way it works best. Now clearly it's a very careful choice. And if I start a picture and work on it, feeling 'this is the bottom, this is the top, this is the right, or this is the left,' choices occur, and spaces occur, and light and drawing and the aesthetics of it evolve, which has been true of all painting, always.

"If you're an old master standing at an easel, you don't know how the stroke of sienna on the sable lapel is going to affect the ring on the left hand," she explains.

When this last sentence is checked with her, as she requested all her direct quotations be checked for this article, she changed the brushstrokes slightly: It became: "How the stroke of sienna on a fur lapel mightm affect the ring on the left hand in relationship in a portrait of, for example, a patrician."

She continued: "And there are changes to be made and additions and subtractions, and it is really no different from looking at a picture and saying , 'I think if I add this, delete that, risk this, pursue that, hold on to this,' whatever, that it is more of an aesthetic experience turning this way or turning that way.

"I don't mean necessarily physically turning the picture. sometimes what you thought was the top turns out not to be the top. But in a way that's irrelevant. What should concern you is what are you left with when you look at it on the wall. Does it work?"

On the wall across from where she sits in her dining room is an exuberant, huge painting, sunbursts of yellow-orange lit with blue, green, gold. It works. Its creator is sitting at the dining room table, elbows resting on a lime-green linen cloth. It is a convenient position from which to give the wipe-out signal she uses to delete a question or answer on the tape recorder which she does not want to appear in this picture of her.

Miss Frankenthaler is a tall, slender woman with a fragile-looking figure and a strong jaw. She has the dark, exotic attractiveness of one of Ingre's women, but her features are so firmly delineated they might be carved. She wears her shoulder-length dark brown hair tucked behind her ears.

Her eyes are wide and brown, and this particular morning, faintly skeptical. She wears a watercolor blue, silky shirt over carefully tailored black pants. There is a glimpse of black and white spectator pumps at the ankle.

She speaks in a low, controlled voice with a faint rasp as though the sulfurous city air outside had seeped into the room. Her words are carefully spaced. Here she is, answering a question about what it was like growing up in Manhattan, with a father who was a New York State Supreme Court judge, in an affluent family that knew early on that she was an extremely gifted child. Was she aware of that special talent then, was it difficult for her as a child?

"I don't remember being aware of it then," she says slowly, musingly. "I think, in fact, that I had a difficult and complicated and often wonderful childhood like and other child. But I would imagine that any child who is gifted and has not yet experienced the manifestation of the gift that is to come in adult life must someplace suffer a tremendous loneliness. Because one is different, yet one is the same as everyone else, and I think when late adolescence and maturity come along, then one is much more apt to cope with the gift and cope with life. When you're a child, you're not up to realizing, thank goodness, the drama. But the drama exists." In line with that she has also said , "If you have a gift, it is your halo and your cross."

Growing up on Park Avenue, she did all the standard little-girl things, collecting dolls, roller-skating, going to the zoo and Rumpelmayer's. She also collected little glass objects and trading cards (her favorites were those with Watteau and Fragonard pictures on them), and made puppets. She cooked, loved being in the kitchen. She did watercolors and sketches and drew with Crayolas.

"I loved it [painting and drawing] and I was, like most children, good at it. And like most parents, mine were proud of their kids' drawings. . . . I also made cards and drawings to celebrate things, family birthdays and anniversaries, " she adds.

Eugene Goossen, a prominent art critic and longtime family friend, remembers another Helen. She was the smallest one of three girls, but when they'd go out walking with their father the judge, she'd always be "six paces ahead of everyone else. She has two very bright sisters, Marjorie and Gloria. Helen was the youngest. She was always out there pacing the way, an individualist, she was going to be the best, she was not going to be No. 3 like National or No. 2 like Avis."

Even as a child, he says, because of her family background, she mingled easily with the powerful and famous. As a little girl, she sat on Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's lap when he came to visit her father.

Goossen, a full professor at City University of New York and at Hunter College and its graduate center, teaches theory and criticism of art and art history. He has been responsible for major exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Whitney Museum, where he directed Frankenthaler's 1969 retrospective. He says of the mature Helen Frankenthaler: "I have no hesitation in saying she stands right up in the top row of living contemporary artists here and abroad. Even by 1950 or '51 [when she first began exhibiting] she was someone to be dealt with. . . .

"I never think about her being a woman painter, although she's become exemplary as one of the four or five major women artists of this century."

She and the other major women painters, he feels, have become that because they choose "leading with the art." "They transcend simply saying 'I'm a woman' and making that the issue, unlike the whole group of women today who are leading with 'I'm a woman' instead of leading with the art."

As a painter, Goossen says, "Helen makes a very strong statement. A lot of women artists . . . rely on the classic position of what women are supposed to be. They emphasize textiles, clothes, the things we assume women will [use], they use boudoir colors, where I feel Helen can use color with a tremendously strong yet feminine instinct, not kowtowing to the classic stereotypes of the feminine. It gives her painting a certain quality that [Georgia] O'Keeffe's has , too: They certainly are feminine women painters, but their statements are as powerful and strong as a man's.

"Helen Frankenthaler transcends any sexual categorization, she uses everything she's got in her as a woman but in a way that belongs to the world of art which is not divided into sexes, which is sexless. . . . She transcends all of that."

Feminist Germaine Greer challenges concepts of gender in art in her book "The Obstacle Race," subtitled "The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work." She suggests that there have been no female Leonardos, Titians, Poussins, not because they are inferior to men but because their egos have been damaged, libidos shattered, energies diverted by centuries of art dominated by men.

Frankenthaler refuses to comment on whether she believes that's horseradish or not. "I think there are different views," she says cryptically.

But her approach to life and art appears to be that in any century she would have forged through and been a painter, that from the start, as an artist she just paints,m without thinking what the obstacles are, whether the atmosphere is right, who her mentors were or are. Whether the talent that is Helen Frankenthaler's could have come to light if she had been born a woman a couple of centuries ago in a poor and primitive society is of course speculative, as she would admit.

But she was not. From the beginning, this child in love with light, who called her mother to the window of their apartment to watch the sunsets, who always asked for the rooms with a sky view when they traveled, this child was nurtured as an artist.

"Unlike the majority of modernists who were frustrated and misunderstood by their parents and teachers, Frankenthaler was supported and encouraged in her urge toward self-expression," Barbara Rose, the critic, says in her monograph on Frankenthaler. "It is possible that Helen Frankenthaler's education was the most consistent and thorough of any painter of the New York School" (as the group of Abstract Expressionists to which she belongs is called).

She was sent to Brearly, the exclusive New York girls' school, then to Dalton , a progressive school, where she was a favorite pupil of the noted Mexican surrealist Rufino Tamayo. She would stroll over to the Guggenheim, or down to the Museum of Modern Art, where Dali's limp watch in his celebrated surrealist painting "Persistence of Memory" awoke her to the possibilities of melting, fluid images.

She chose an avant-garde college, Bennington, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, one of the few colleges that in the late '40s welcomed actual writers, like W. H. Auden, and painters like Paul Feeley, as faculty members.

FRom Feeley she learned to analyze the work of the major modern masters, and through his teaching became an accomplished Cubist painter. After graduation, she took an art history course at Columbia, then eventually broke off to paint on her own in a $14-a-month cold-water studio on 21st Street, which she shared with her college friend, writer Sonya Rudikoff.

Rudikoff, who also studied under Feeley, says, "Bennington was important not only because it opened up the whole world of modern painting. But it was also a certain way of regarding, initiating us into the life of art, the response to life from within art. . . . It was the response to feelings and articulating the response. . . ."

In a much less serious vein: On one bitter cold, snow-covered winter day at Bennington, Frankenthaler and she and a few friends went in for what Rudikoff describes as "surrealistic high jinks," dressing up in bizarre costumes, painting their faces, and sitting down at a card table for a game of bridge in the snow, as a spoof on the surrealistic and Dadaistic art they had been studying.

It was at the New York cold-water studio she shared with Rudikoff that Frankenthaler did the canvas "Painted on 21st Street," one of her three Paintings on view in "The Fifties" exhibit of the New York School at the Hirshhorn Museum here.

In a tape that accompanies the show, she describes it as being about "the light within white itself. . . . The endless numbers and colors and spaces and lights. . . ." It contains also bits of sand and, as she notes with her characteristic wry humor: If you look in the upper right corner you might see some of that morning's coffee grounds embedded in the plaster of Paris. . . .

"Twenty First Street" is done in paint at times so thick it has crusts, the opposite of the light-soaked and stained style that was to emerge as Frankenthaler's mark or signature. It was through her friend and mentor Clement Greenburg, also an art critic, that she first met Jackson Pollock and the rest of the New York School. Frankenthaler's work is generally said to belong to the "second generation" of those Abstract Expressionists whose work was "not based on objective reality . . . painting that expressed their emotions," as the Hirshhorn exhibit explains.

It was Jackson Pollock who opened the door for Frankenthaler into an area of art she then made her own. She visited his studio, where he poured the paint onto huge canvases stretched on the floor, dripping the paint on with his now-famous technique. Barbara Rose quotes Frankenthaler's reaction to seeing Pollock's paintings "Number One" and "Autumn Rhythm": She felt as if she were "in the center ring of Madison Square Garden." She explained: "it was as if I suddenly went to a foreign country but didn't know the language, but had read enough and had a passionate interest, and was eager to live there. I wanted to live in this land; I had tom live there, and master the language."

Rose notes that Pollock then became Frankenthaler's mentor, displacing Picasso, Gorky, and Kandinsky. That was 1951.

By 1952, Frankenthaler had done what many critics regard as her breakthrough painting, the first major stained work, "Mountains and Sea." It is a liquid, lyric wash of sky blue, green, and mountain shades from coral-rose to brown which seems to float on one wall at the National Gallery's new East Wing.

For the first time, she put the unprimed canvas on the floor, pouring on paint thinned to the consistency of watercolor into pools that flowed outward, but controlling the flow with sponges, wipers, and her own creative intelligence. Critic Eleanor Munro in her book "Originals: American Women Artists" describes that day. She says the new technique "let waterlight fill her work." She quotes Frankenthaler's almost rhapsodic explanation of the creation inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia: "I had the landscape in my arms when I painted it. I had the landscape in my mind and shoulder and wrist."

And yet when she is asked about "Mountains and Sea," whether it was the painting in which as an Abstract Expressionists she thought, "Eureka! I've found it," she demurs.

"I think that's probably your interpretation of it," she says quietly. "I don't think anything is that clear or determined or recognized or cut and dried. It is never that self-conscious. If it is, I'm suspicious of it. . . .

"I think in the early '50s, around the time I painted 'Mountains and Sea,' a number of things seemed to manifest themselves and gel that in some ways were a result of my knowing analytic cubism, my bieng in New York City in 1950, looking at the work of Jackson Pollock, coming from what I came from both in art and in life, and bringing what I had to bear in relation to all the other facets. And I think that around that my 'mark' or signature evolved in one phase aesthetically."

She is sitting facing the smoggy morning light, which falls, a faintly metallic gray, over her town house garden.In the garden is a white, feathery rose of Sharon she loves, blooming amid the bricks and ivy and impatiens, and the massive David Smith sculptures. In the dining room, too, is a Smith sculpture, another memory of a close family friendship during the time she was married to Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, from whom she is divorced. A brighter, stronger light floods through the modernistic bay window of the double living room, with its white tile floors, coral and green couches, and its collection of old and modern masters.

What significance does light have for Frankenthaler; does she paint her transparent pictures with light?

"I think that light that works is part of every beautiful picture. It isn't necessasrily sky light but a quality called light, that can be in any painting at any time through history, from della Francesca to Jules Olitski. The light that makes it will appear. It doesn't have to do with the style of the time. It has to do with a quality inherent in the history of painting."

She explains that the quality called light which can be in any painting is "that which makes it work as an aesthetic experience. And the subject matter is irrelevant." She has spoken in an Eleanor Munro interview of "a metaphysical, aesthetic light, without which a painting is dead."

It is that "quality of light," she now explains, "that is one -- not all, there is scale, for instance -- one of many htings that contribute to the magic of a picture, that makes you feel 'that's beautiful. That's got it.' And you know when somehting doesn't have it because by contrast it goes dead and doesn't work. It doesn't have that light. It doesn't have that je ne sais quoi."m

For Frankenthaler her mark, her "wrist," is as important as light. She has said of working in prints: "The artist's wrist is of crucial importance. I believe that wrist, that sensibility must be in and on the whole concept of the making of the print. . . . The artist of quality [creates] a beautiful graphic that 'bleeds' his sensibility -- his feeling, magic, head, heart -- within the felt embrace of a sensitive workshop."

In the current graphics exhibit, you can see the bleeding of her emotions as an artist with her relentless drive toward the perfect physical expression of them in her prints. The eye remembers the glorious, soaring colors, the exuberant blue and gold and green of "Air Frame" and the romance of "Green Likes Mauve." But the mind remembers all the variations on a theme until it was right, the five plate proofs, the eight experimental impressions that went into the large intaglio "Earth Slice" and the smaller intaglio "Ganymede" plucked from a portion of it.

Frankenthaler describes herself as "spontaneous; but I think I tend to be a perfectionist, demanding, impatient with myself very often."

Eugene Goossen says, "She's one of the most motivated artists I know. She's absolutely dedicated to her art. . . . One of the brightest people, with an extraordinarily high IQ. . . . She works very hard for periods of time, for a period of six to eight weeks she'll work through, cutting out everything, although she enjoys the social world, the world of people. Whe she gets rolling , she blocks out a great deal of life she might otherwise enjoy."

He speaks of her hands as the clue: "They're strong and workmanlike hands but not big; they're expressive hands. She doesn't wear any fasncy nail polish, they're real painter's hands."

When she is not painting, Miss Frankenthaler may be swimming or crunching pistachios or looking at paintings or talking with friends or soaking up Mozart. He is one of her heroes, along with Titian, Freud, Rembrandt, Matisse, and many others.

"I'm thinking of people I count on, who accomplished monumental things that were gifts to everybody's life. And they include many scientists and many artistic people, many friends you've never heard of."

A voracious, but, she says, a slow, reader, she might also be dipping tinto a book of criticism or one of her favorite authors, Henry James. James himself would have been intrigued with the titles of her paintings and graphics: The 33 -foot-high "Guiding Red," because as she has said, "I was guiding the red -- and the red was guiding me"; "New York Bamboo," "Hurricane Flag," "Cinnamon Burn," "Blue North," "The Human Edge," "I Need Yellow," "Connected by Joy."

And walls. Often walls. "Seawall," a monumentally beautiful acrylic on canvas, hangs near the early "Mountains and Sea" at the National Gallery. It is again that "waterlight" that Eleanor Munro marveled at, a mysterious green ocean of light and paint, shadowed with dark violet, streaked and swimming with bursts of pale blue, marine blue, dark gold, a knot of scarlet, as much its own immersed world as one of Monet's water lily paintings.

Glancing from "Mountains and Sea" to "Seawal" you can see the continuity of Frankenthaler's vision, yet see why the door is always open to new vistas. As Goossen says:

"She has found an approach to art that allows her to paint for the rest of her life, because she is not locked into a special style.Her control over the painting leaves her room for her own identity. Her signature lies under the surface of everything she does. . . . She keeps discovering new ways to produce herself ratehr than new means or methods."

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