fine art

With ‘Fierce Poise,’ Helen Frankenthaler Poured Beauty Onto Canvas

by Susan Stamberg

Powerful, no? And gorgeous. Helen Frankenthaler did it in 1973 — 20 years after making a painting that took Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism a step further. In 1950 she was wowed by the ropes and squiggles of paint Pollock was wrestling onto unstretched canvas on the floor of his barn.

“She realized what was possible,” says Alexander Nemerov, author of the new biography, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York“She’d never seen that degree of freedom.” She quit doing careful faux Picassos, and, Nemerov says, “she made a kind of art that hadn’t been done before.”

Instead of roping and lassoing and dribbling paint a la Pollock, Frankenthaler poured pools of highly diluted pigments onto her raw canvases. The thinned-out acrylics soaked into the fabric — stained it in veils of color. In 1952, with Mountains and Sea, she had her breakthrough. The picture had a “brazen yet gentle freedom … ” Nemerov writes, “this sense of art spilling out.”

I love origin stories, and art historian Nemerov tells two good ones. Little Helen and her nanny went to a small park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art fairly often. When it was time to leave, Helen insisted on drawing a chalk line — “uninterrupted, unbroken” says the author — from the museum on 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue to her family’s apartment on East 74th Street and Park Avenue. That’s a long walk for a little girl. Especially bent over, and up and down curbs. But she was determined. Tells you a lot, doesn’t it? That she was strong-minded. And her family was rich — her father was a New York State Supreme Court justice.

(Her adult voice reminded me of East Side minked women I’d grown up overhearing on crosstown buses in the days when wealthy Manhattanites used public transportation. You can hear it yourself in my 1988 NPR interview of her. Rare. She didn’t give many.)

Archive: Hear The 1988 Interview

Helen Frankenthaler

You can see her colors getting stronger as the 1950s went on. But still they spill out so lightly and freely. “In a state of becoming” Nemerov says. So they look unfinished … incomplete … like notes for a painting. And beautiful. She was criticized for that. Larry Rivers, another big artist of the day, told her she wasn’t struggling enough, that life and art are connected to struggle. And meanly, Grace Hartigan, another of the ’50s artists trying to make their mark in that macho art world (Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Elaine de Kooning were others) once said her pal Frankenthaler’s art “looks like it was painted between cocktails and dinner.” Mean. She apologized years later.

Alexander Nemerov has a far more graceful way to describe the light and life in Frankenthaler’s paintings: “She was blessed with the power to portray that moment where a painting has just become a painting, but not so much that it turns into an atrophied fossilized rendition of life.”

I promised you two origin stories. The second feels very much like foreshadowing. Little Helen again — in the expensive Park Avenue apartment — had her own bathroom. She loved sprinkling her mother’s blood-red nail polish into some water in the sink to watch the patterns it made. Scolded? Punished? Doubtful.

She was an adored child, told over and over again that she was special. Private schools. Bennington College. Beautiful (immense dark eyes, dark hair). Great confidence. No self-doubt, even about her art. Also depressive, Nemerov reports. Her beloved father died when she was 11; her mother took her own life when Helen was 25. “Art saved Helen,” Nemerov thinks.

Asked what the paintings are “about,” the biographer says, “that lyrical moment of possibility in life, which is not unmixed with sadness and even grief. It’s about feeling the world.”

ARTIST: Frankenthaler, Helen NATIONALITY: United States DATE_OF_WORK: 1958 MATERIALS: oil on canvas DIMENSIONS: 102 -3/8 x 104 -3/8 CREDIT_LINE: Anonymous gift

But the riot of colors in this picture from 1958 looks to me like an explosion of happiness. The painting bursts with it. Scroll back to the last work, Eden. Those numbers — 100s. No theories about them. But the red numbers in Before the Caves — 173 — are a love story. She’d recently married Robert Motherwell, a famous first generation abstract expressionist like Pollock, and they’d moved to a townhouse at 173 East 94th Street.

Alexander Nemerov’s book Fierce Poise describes that relationship, and an earlier one with Clement Greenberg — the leading art critic of the ’50s, who encouraged and helped her career. Plus the book has lyrical, powerful descriptions of paintings she was making. It ends with Frankenthaler on the brim of the great success and recognition she’d always craved and expected. A major retrospective at a major museum — The Whitney. Two months before the opening, at her 40th birthday party, a friend said Helen’s eyes were “sparkling with sheer excitement.” While the biography ends there, Helen Frankenthaler went on making art for the rest of her life. When she died in 2011 at the age of 83, she had become part of the pantheon of major 20th century artists.

Abstract expressionist artist Helen Frankenthaler at work in her studio, 1969. She is the inventor of a technique whereby unprimed and absorbent canvas is soaked with paint giving a translucent effect. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Art Where You’re At is an informal series, usually showcasing offerings at museums closed due to COVID-19, or at museums you may not be able to visit. This essay on a new book is an exception, because (full disclosure) Helen Frankenthaler is one of the essayist’s favorite artists.

After Protest, Whitney Museum Cancels Show By Artists It Meant To Celebrate

by Neda Ulaby

NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 26: An exterior view of the venue at the Audi private reception at the Whitney Museum of American Art on October 26, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Audi)

Another hot summer, another heated controversy at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

For an exhibition entitled “Collective Actions: Artist Interventions In A Time of Change,” the vaunted New York museum managed to alienate a group of artists it had hoped to celebrate. Several of them charged the museum with propagating systemic racism by not properly compensating BIPOC artists for their work, nor asking permission for the work to be displayed.

“This is unreal,” wrote photographer Gioncarlo Valentinein a Monday evening tweet. He posted a screenshot of a message that appeared to be from Whitney curator Farris Wahbeh informing Valentine that one of his prints, called “Untitled” from the project See In Black, had been acquired for the Whitney’s special collections and the Whitney planned to include it in the upcoming show.

“In recognition and appreciation of your inclusion in the Whitney’s program, I’m happy to note that you will receive an Artist Lifetime Pass which allows you and a guest free entry to the museum as well as other benefits,” the screenshot reads in part. “I’m so honored that your work will be on view in this exhibition and couldn’t be more excited that it will reach Whitney audiences at this critical time.”

The exhibition, originally scheduled to open Sept. 17, was intended to showcase “the critical role of artists in documenting moments of seismic change and protest,” according to a now-deleted press release, and was to include “prints, photographs, posters, and digital files that have been created this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Valentine was having none of it. “One of the many reasons I don’t use social media at all,” he tweeted. “[This] man was following me, not engaging my work, not asking me [expletive], and ‘acquired’ a print that I did not sign or make, meant to raise money.

“I wanna [expletive] fight,” Valentine added. The artist also referenced last summer’s defining Whitney controversy during which eight artists withdrew from the 2019 Biennial over vice chairman Warren B. Kander’s role in manufacturing tear gas used against political protesters in marginalized communities. 

See In Black is a collective of Black photographers organized to dismantle white oppression, according to the group’s mission statement. It sells work to support causes “that align with our vision of Black prosperity. We stand in solidarity with our greater Black family to take immediate action for the improvement of Black Lives.”

Once the controversy started spreading through social media, the group responded with a statement that read in part: “the Whitney’s use of the world acquired through the See In Black Print sale at significantly discounted prices – the proceeds of which were donated 100% to charity – constitutes unauthorized use of the works to which the artists do not consent and for which the artists were not compensated. See In Black is not affiliated with the Whitney’s exhibition.

“We want to make one thing clear,” the statement continued. “See in Black’s purpose has always been to uplift and invest in Black Visibility. We stand behind the photographers who participated in our charitable initiative and will continue to prioritize their interests in this matter.”

Negative reaction was quick and widespread. Art critic Antwaun Sargent suggested in a tweet that acquiring the works for the special collection reduced them to ephemera; “reader: it’s a meaningless internal distinction and loophole,” he wrote. Writer Muna Mire tweeted, “I can’t believe how EVIL it is for the Whitney to ‘acquire’ movement art priced w intent for the community to use for fundraising/flyering.” She continued, “So extractive to turn around and parrot social justice language in a show that accomplishes precisely what it positions itself to be against.”

Artist and social critic William Powhida was equally blunt. “Now I’m wondering if the @whitneymuseum will cancel the show before speaking to the artists,” he presciently tweeted. “Just like the way they organized the show.” 

On Tuesday afternoon, the Whitney announced “Collective Actions” would be canceled. In an abashed letter of apology, curator Farris Wahbeh wrote:

“My sincere hope in collecting them was to build on a historical record of how artists directly engage the important issues of their time. Going forward, we will study and consider further how we can better collect and exhibit artworks and related material that are made and distributed through these channels. I understand how projects in the past several months have a special resonance and I sincerely want to extend my apologies for any pain that the exhibition has caused.”

CorrectionAug. 26, 2020

A previous version of this story misspelled Farris Wahbeh’s first name as Ferris.

‘She’s Challenging You’: Alison Saar’s Sculptures Speak To Race, Beauty, Power

By Susan Stamberg

“She’s challenging you to sit down in that chair,” Los Angeles artist Alison Saar says of her 2019 sculpture, Set to Simmer.
Jeff McLane/L.A. Louver

For Los Angeles sculptor Alison Saar, art came from both sides of the family. Her mother, Betye Saar, 93, is a well-known artist. Her father, Richard Saar, was a conservator and ceramicist. The sculptures and prints Saar makes echo themes her mother has touched for decades. Betye Saar’s collages reflect the anger of the civil rights generation; her daughter builds on that history.

Race, gender, the power of women, black hair, and the kitchen are all themes that appear in Saar’s work. Her last show in L.A. offered a small cookbook of family recipes, accompanied by photos of her works. Next to a recipe for greens you can see Saar’s sculpture Kitchen Amazon. It’s a large female nude sheathed in antique, rusted tin, salvaged from ceilings in old New York tenements. Embossed with patterns, the tin is tacked tightly onto the carved wooden figure, like skin.

Saar created Kitchen Amazon in 2019 from wood, ceiling tin, barbed wire, tar, found skillets, linoleum, and found chain.
Jeff McLane/L.A. Louver

It’s gorgeous, and Kimberly Davis — director of L.A. Louver, the gallery that shows Saar’s work — explains the patterned tin also “speaks of scarification and African rituals of how the body can be changed and glorified.” Cast-iron skillets hang from a heavy chain belt draped around the Amazon’s hips. She holds a pan above her shoulder “in a kind of fierce don’t-mess-with-me” pose. Saar explains with a laugh: “People get out of hand, you hit someone upside the head with the skillet!”

But Kitchen Amazon also nourishes her family, holds them together. The sculpture starred in an L.A. Louver show called “Chaos in the Kitchen.” Her childhood kitchen in California was wonderfully chaotic, Saar says — full of manic energy. Her mother painted, Alison and her siblings did homework there, and they all cooked. “We also heated up our hotcombs and did our hair — that was also the hair parlor,” she recalls, adding that the kitchen always smelled of cornbread and singed hair.

Saar says she gets “a sense of calm in all this chaos,” watching seeds she planted begin to sprout.
Susan Stamberg/NPR

Saar has a gray cloud of soft hair — but there’s nothing soft about the hair in her sculptures. It’s made with barbed and baling wire. The sculpture Set to Simmer (see it at the top of the page) shows a nude with dangerous looking hair — tough, bristly, sharp.

The figure is voluptuous — vibrant red lips, tight breasts — she stretches out on a long red table. A chair is drawn up to the table, inviting viewers to have a seat and ponder. “She’s challenging you to sit down in that chair,” Saar explains. “She says: Yeah, if you want to look at me, don’t just give me a sideways glance. Sit down in this chair and know me.”

The sculpted woman is confident in her own embellished skin and powerful with her thick iron hair. She’s a 21st century woman. She takes Saar back, again, to her childhood days in the kitchen, where her grandmother straightened her hair with an object Alison now uses to make art — a hot comb. (They become bases for small nude sculptures, such as The Big Singe, which you can see below). She knows the process: Smear on Pomade, then guide the hot comb starting at the bottom of the hair and working up to the scalp. It took forever. “And then,” Saar explains, “you’ve just got to stay out of the water, and don’t sweat!”

Now 64, Saar says her generation mostly didn’t straighten their hair, which freed up a lot of time for other things — like, say, making art.

With Surprising Sculptures, Katharina Fritsch Makes The Familiar Fun

by Susan Stamberg

German sculptor Katharina Fritsch has a thing for roosters. She’s responsible for the giant blue one perched atop the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., overlooking Constitution Avenue. “It brings joy, you know, to the capital,” she says.

Why roosters? They intrigue her; she finds them interesting and sociable. “They have a language — they have 30 sounds for food,” she explains.

In February, one of Fritsch’s roosters flew to the Matthew Marks Gallery in Los Angeles to preside at her first one-person show there. Her large, surprising and funny sculptures were supposed to be on public view right now, but the gallery is closed because of the coronavirus. So here’s a virtual visit to the show, which I was lucky to see in person before the city shut its doors.

The 13-foot, bright blue rooster stands on its own circular, lime green pedestal. Fritsch loves using color — ultramarine blue, red, black. “Adding the color gives a very emotional aspect,” she explains. “People are always attracted by color. Some art historians would say that it’s childish or something like that. I don’t think so.”

The rooster is made of polyester and steel and sprayed with blue acrylic paint — matte, no shine. And facing it — dwarfed (maybe roostered) by it — stand two life-size sculpted men. They wear tight pants, sturdy shoes and long jackets, stylish enough for a big city. The men don’t seem to care about the big rooster right in front of them.