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“A Search for Truth and Beauty”: Helen Frankenthaler, Dead at 83 UPDATED

Helen Frankenthaler
Photo © Chris Felver

Helen Frankenthaler, 83, who died today after a long illness, was never a comfortable artworld fit. Her unabashed commitment to subtle beauty and ethereal lyricism set her apart from the rough-and-tumble Abstract Expressionist circles in which she gracefully moved. She stayed her artistic course throughout, with steadfast disregard of new fashions and movements.

In today’s NY Times obit, veteran art journalist Grace Glueck writes that this second-generation Abstract Expressionist “departed from the first generation’s romantic search for the ‘sublime’ to pursue her own path….[She] brought a new open airiness to the painted surface and was credited
with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of
Abstract Expressionism.”

Frankenthaler’s breakthrough painting, “Mountains and Sea,” in which she first experimented with the staining technique that made her famous and deeply influenced her colleagues, remains the work most closely associated with her in the public imagination. I last saw it in the landmark 2008 Action/Abstraction exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, and it still has the power to enthrall:

Frankenthaler, “Mountains and Sea,” 1952, on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art

I interviewed Frankenthaler for a Mar. 7, 1993 article I did for the NY Times‘ “Arts & Leisure” section (unaccountably not online). Its subjects (also including Jane Freilicher, Frank Stella and Mark di Suvero, among others) were well known, respected artists who had somehow become unfashionable and/or fallen into obscurity.

Helen opened up to me after I mentioned that her father, New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler, had once issued a ruling making it possible for my immigrant grandfather, Morris Flasterstein, to hold onto his property during the Great Depression. (My grandfather had begun his life in this country as a house painter, and went on to become a developer/landlord of buildings in the Bronx, including the apartment house in which I grew up.)

“I love hearing those stories about my father!” this native New Yorker responded warmly.

Here’s what else she told me:

Fashion and money, fame and power politics have played a part in all art worlds. You’ve just got to plug away….I see a revival of the meaning of the word “quality”—a search for truth and beauty in lieu of stock certificates. People are most interested in what’s real, what endures.”

May her work do so.

UPDATE: I particularly liked Jerry Saltz‘s tribute, just posted by New York Magazine.

[My warm thanks to photographer Chris Felver for permission to use his evocative image of the artist.]

an ArtsJournal blog