How Helen Frankenthaler’s Coastal Escapes Shaped Her Paintings


Helen Frankenthaler, “Flood” (1967), acrylic on canvas, 124 1/4 x 140 1/2 in. (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchased with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art 68.12)

WATERMILL, New York – In ‘Provincetown Window’ (1963-1964), Helen Frankenthaler abstracted a familiar object. In doing so, she struck a delicate balance between color and space. Globes of blue, green, orange and yellow acrylic radiate from royal blue glass. Patches of unpainted canvas allow the saturations to shine through more brilliantly. Frankenthaler’s ability to capture this light became a defining achievement during her time in the Cape Cod art colony, where she found new ways to translate her experience into an aesthetic.

The summery hues of the Massachusetts coast deeply influenced Frankenthaler; its landscapes and seashores would become his muses for more than a decade. The paintings and drawings that make up Abstract climates, currently on display at the Parrish Art Museum, documents his stylistic shift from grainy brushstrokes to broad smudges of paint. Curated by his daughter-in-law, Lise Motherwell, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, the exhibition compiles works created or inspired by Provincetown, as well as vintage photographs, postcards, letters and other transitory documents.

Helen Frankenthaler, “Provincetown Window” (1963-64), acrylic on canvas, 82 3/8 x 81 7/8 in. (Private collection © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Tim Pyle, courtesy of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation)

Helen Frankenthaler, “Low Tide” (1963), oil on canvas, 84 x 81 ¾ in. (Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Susan Morse Hilles)

Provincetown was a well-known artists’ retreat throughout the 20th century, attracting blue-chip townspeople like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But unlike these contemporaries—other pioneers of the Color Field movement—Frankenthaler tested the limits of the material world by direct reference, manipulating elements of his environment into extensive topographical studies. From the late 1950s to 1969, she occupied increasingly larger studios at Days Lumberyard, on Commercial Street and in the East End. With more space, she could work with larger canvases. Three rooms in the Parrish correlate with these stages of his development, emphasizing scale as a catalyst for change.

Helen Frankenthaler, “Sea Picture with Black” (1959), oil, enamel and pencil on primed canvas, 85 1/4 x 57 1/4 in. (Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Susan Morse Hilles © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Small oil paintings and mixed media pieces from the early 1950s – when his work was closely tied to Abstract Expressionism – reflect his studies with the famous instructor Hans Hofmann, as well as his visits with the critic Clement Greenberg at Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s East Hampton studio in 1951 and ’52. These later experiences encouraged her to be more assertive and spontaneous with the painting process. Frankenthaler had cultivated a more intuitive approach by the end of the decade, when she returned to Provincetown to purchase property with her then-husband, Robert Motherwell. She favors nature scenes over character studies, as in “Sea Picture with Black” (1959). Huge bands of teal and aquamarine flow across the canvas, enlivened by streaks of white and pink. A mass of black and gray breaks over the waves, stabilizing the scene like a creek carrying a counter-current.

Within a year, Frankenthaler would eliminate content from his paintings, pushing more non-objective forms into the center of otherwise unpainted canvases. Works such as “Provincetown I” (1961) and “Cool Summer” (1962) feature his most pronounced dipping stains, with outer layers of oil creating a glossy effect. Streaks of color burst from the center of each frame, isolated in their cream colored backgrounds. She will later free her abstractions from these spatial constraints. This is perhaps best represented by “Low Tide” (1963). A dark blue and hunter green amoeba ripples like a slimy pool of tie-dye, blending into a tide of bright yellow. The composition and contrast of tones blur the distinction between deep sea and night sky.

Applying acrylic paints and resins directly to unprimed canvas allowed Frankthaler to imitate the watercolor process, but reduced the margin for error. Colossal abstractions from the late 1960s fill the museum’s largest hall, absorbing the viewer into their minimalist grandeur. Frankenthaler fused loose and precise techniques with these works, densely smearing earth tones in distinct layers. In “Flood” (1967), large areas of orange, pink and green bend into sine waves, grounded on a navy blue base. The huge seascape displays a more linear fluidity than its predecessors, flowing horizontally like stratus clouds at dusk. Up close, each band of color reveals the gaps in the blank canvas left by the artist’s sweeping gestures.

Helen Frankenthaler, “Cool Summer” (1962), oil on canvas, 69 3/4 x 120 in. (Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photography by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian)

More than just a scenic getaway, Provincetown has provided many artists breathing space, both professionally and aesthetically. Frankenthaler may have been well aware of this every time she dived into the sea and got airborne. Freed from the pressures of her life in Manhattan, she plunged ever deeper into the subconscious daydreams of coastal Cape Cod, channeling her fleeting pleasures into enduring images.

Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown continues at the Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, New York) through October 27.


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