Art

How Helen Frankenthaler’s Coastal Escapes Shaped Her Paintings

The summer hues of coastal Massachusetts deeply influenced Frankenthaler; its landscapes and seashores would become her muses for more than a decade.

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

WATER MILL, New York — In “Provincetown Window” (1963–64), Helen Frankenthaler abstracted a familiar object. In doing so, she established a delicate balance of color and space. Orbs of blue, green, orange, and yellow acrylic radiate within a royal blue windowpane. Patches of unpainted canvas allow the saturations to shine more brightly. 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 summer hues of coastal Massachusetts deeply influenced Frankenthaler; its landscapes and seashores would become her muses for more than a decade. The paintings and drawings that comprise Abstract Climates, currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum, document her stylistic shift from granular brushstrokes to broad stains of paint. Curated by her stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler Foundation executive director Elizabeth Smith, the exhibition compiles works created in or inspired by Provincetown, along with old photographs, postcards, letters, and other ephemera.

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 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 city dwellers like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. But unlike these contemporaries — fellow pioneers of the Color Field movement — Frankenthaler tested the limits of the material world through direct reference, manipulating elements of her surroundings into vast topographical studies. From the late 1950s to 1969, she occupied increasingly larger studios at the Days Lumberyard, on Commercial Street, and in the East End. With more space, she could work with more expansive canvases. Three rooms at the Parrish correlate to these stages in her development, emphasizing scale as a catalyst for change.

Helen Frankenthaler, “Sea Picture with Black” (1959), oil, enamel and crayon 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. Photograph courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art)

Small oil paintings and mixed media pieces from the early 1950s — when her work was closely aligned with Abstract Expressionism — reflect her studies with renowned instructor Hans Hofmann, as well as her visits with critic Clement Greenberg to the East Hampton studio of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in 1951 and ’52. These latter 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 buy property with her then-husband Robert Motherwell. She prioritized nature scenes over figure studies, as in “Sea Picture with Black” (1959). Huge swaths of teal and aquamarine pour down the canvas, animated by streaks of white and pink. A mass of black and gray breaks through the waves, stabilizing the scene like an inlet bearing a riptide.

Within a year, Frankenthaler would strip down the content of her paintings, pushing more non-objective forms to the center of otherwise unpainted canvases. Works such as “Provincetown I” (1961) and “Cool Summer” (1962) exhibit her most pronounced soak stains, with outer layers of oil creating a glowing effect. Streaks of color burst from the center of each frame, isolated within their cream-colored backgrounds. She would later release her abstractions from these spatial restraints. This is perhaps best represented by “Low Tide” (1963). A dark blue and hunter green amoeba ripples like a viscous pool of tie-dye, merging into a tide of bright yellow. The composition and tonal contrast together blur the distinction between deep sea and night sky.

Applying acrylic paints and resins directly onto unprimed canvases allowed Frankthaler to mimic the watercolor process, but reduced the margin of error. Colossal abstractions from the late 1960s occupy the museum’s largest room, absorbing the viewer in their minimalist grandeur. Frankenthaler merged loose and precise techniques with these works, densely smearing earth tones in distinct layers. In “Flood” (1967), vast areas of orange, pink, and green bend into sine waves, grounded by a navy blue base. The immense seascape displays more linear fluidity than its predecessors, flowing horizontally like stratus clouds at twilight. Up close, each band of color reveals gaps of blank canvas left behind from 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, photograph by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian)

More than just a picturesque escape, Provincetown provided many artists with the opportunity to breathe — both professionally and aesthetically. Perhaps Frankenthaler was acutely aware of this each time she dove into the sea and came up for air. Free from the pressures of her life in Manhattan, she plunged ever deeper into the subconscious reveries of the Cape Cod shore town, channeling its fleeting pleasures into lasting imagery.

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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