Sunday, July 29, 2018

Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown

"My pictures are full of abstract climates and not nature per se, but a feeling."
-Helen Frankethaler, 1962

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 - 2011) was a giant among the mid-twentieth century "second generation" New York abstract expressionists. Her contribution was original and exerted a major influence on postwar American art. 

Frankenthaler at PAAM.
There's a knockout show of her work titled "Abstract Climates, Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown" at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (affectionately known as PAAM) until September 2018. The PAAM selection provides a revealing lens through which to appreciate Frankenthaler's work. Nearly all of the PAAM paintings reflect Frankenthaler's reactions to the landscape of the Cape, where she made these paintings during about a decade of summers during the 1960s.

Frankenthaler originated the "soak stain" technique.

Helen Frankenthaler, Blue Atmosphere II, 1963, 72" x 69.5"
Like Pollock, she worked on large unprimed and unstretched canvases spread out on the studio floor, pouring and manipulating the paint.

Frankenthaler in her studio in the woods, 1968

Blue Atmosphere, detail 1

Unlike Pollock, she stained raw canvas through with translucent veils of paint, creating large, colorful shapes while also allowing the paint to do its own thing.

Blue Atmosphere, detail 2

Cool Summer, 1959, 69 x 120 inches
Paintings like these can be like poems in how they transcribe experience into beautiful new wholistic forms that nonetheless avoid simplistic lyricism. They obey different laws than those of traditional western art.

Sea Picture with Black, 1959, 82x57 inches
The sea is raw, so that's how she transcribed it - not with exaggerated or distorted representation, chaos or incomprehensible geometry, but directly through the paint's colors, its capacity to drip and splash like water or billow in translucent plumes like foam - and yet again into something new and strange that it takes new eyes to see.

Sea Picture with Black, detail
Her paintings affirm that "non-representational" does not have to mean devoid of content. Standing before the huge and gorgeous painting, "The Bay," I saw all the colors of the Cape - there was the silvery sheen on the marsh grass I was trying to match that very morning; there was the warm gray-brown of the sand in shadow I'd been seeing in the dunes. But this painting used these "facts" as mere starting points for a new ordering of beauty.

Helen Frankenthaler, The Bay, 1963, 80x62 inches. Resembles a continent, or an aerial photo, no?

This little landscape was the most representational of the bunch- but its similarities to "The Bay" above, while not immediately apparent, are intriguing.

Provincetown Window, 1963-64, 82 x 81 inches
By focusing on place, the curators foreground the content in Frankenthaler's work (always helpful when putting abstract paintings before the public), and this helps to clarify one of the primary differences between Frankenthaler and her peers - Frankenthaler used her art to embody and express sensations and experiences above ideas. This isn't what makes her work great - it's just a characteristic of it that distinguishes it from other abstract expressionists of the period. What makes it great is the impact it has when you're standing in front of it. I'm not going to try to parse that impact, but part of it for me went something like: "my god, I didn't know that amazing, wildly successful art could look like this."

Beach, 1950, oil, sand, plaster of paris and coffee grounds, 34x32 inches. Love this! It's like the earliest human artistic expressions, basic as cave painting. But she hadn't yet found her true voice. This is steeped in the surrealism of artists like Miro, Picasso, and early Pollock. 

I was still buzzed from the excitement of seeing the work of a great artist creating at the peak of her powers, when an artist named Dan Weldon said something amazing in a talk that he gave about his work. Dan, like myself, was teaching on the faculty of Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro this summer. He distinguished between "conceptual artists" and "experimental artists." By this I think he meant, on the one had, artists for whom the creative process is primarily a thoughtful, well-conceived, rational process and, on the other hand, artists for whom the goal is to channel unconscious energy, to experiment with (I think of it as "partnering with") the medium as a means of getting past conscious control. What's key in Dan's formulation is that it's not about technique (for both approaches, experimental and conceptual, finely honed skills are needed, just not the same or the conventional ones), rather it's about overall approach, about one's fundamental orientation to the creation of art.

Frankenthaler was married during her Provincetown years to abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, who had his own studio in Ptown. Last time I was down there, I saw a show of Motherwell's "sea pictures" (in the parlance of the times) in which he also poured, stained, and flung the paint in his monumental canvases, effectively channeling the fluid rhythms and vigorous gestures of the powerful Atlantic Ocean. Motherwell, by the way, spoke of black and white as "protagonists" in his work. "Black," he said, "is technically not a color, [it represents] non-being if you like. Then what is more natural than a passionate interest in juxtaposing black and white, being and non-being, life and death."
Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea, 1966

Seeing the catalog of that show on sale in the museum jogged my memory and got me thinking about the similarities and differences in these two artists' work. Both were "experimental painters," in the sense that they allowed the material to lead, staying out of the way of the paint and, from a psychological viewpoint, avoiding the rational mind and embracing the unconscious (Motherwell used the surrealist term "automatism.")

The difference is that where Frankenthaler is subjective and personal, Motherwell is iconic - as the quote above reveals, he conceives of his content on the plane of the archetypal and symbolic rather than the relational and personal. Realizing the two artists' kinship and differences allowed me to really enter into Frankenthaler's work. "Experimenting" allowed Frankenthaler to paint the experience of nature without representing it; she channeled the colors and feelings associated with the breezy tip of the Cape directly into her art. 

She simply walked out of the room of traditional Western art. Her approach was to avoid all the conventional "rules" (including representation), to create stunning, literally experimental paintings unlike anything ever seen before. She was less interested in representation than in what art can be, and perhaps communicating on a deeper level with her audience - provided that audience is willing to release expectations of what a painting is "supposed" to look like and accept her personal language of color, shape, and technique.

These ideas and Frankenthaler's example of fearlessness and absolute trust in the materials and the unconscious inspired me to try a much more painterly approach to large abstract paintings than I'd done before. Here's what I came up with:

Christopher Volpe, Cape Light, 2018

I hope to make more paintings in this vein. It's heavily influenced by my sometime mentor Eric Aho, but the moves in the paint and the feeling in it are genuinely mine. And I tried to follow Frankenthaler's example of wholly trusting the materials as well as my intuitive feeling-seeing memory, and trying to paint THAT alone, letting go of nearly all representational forms and getting the sensation into the paint. Whatever else it is, DAMN, was it fun!


  1. Your Cape Light is excellent. It improves on Frankenthaler because there's more going on.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, James! Some would say there's too much going on I think!

  2. I always enjoy reading your blog.

  3. Thanks for this. Saw one Frankenthaler and Motherwell at the Boston Fines Art Museum yesterday.