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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.
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.
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.
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.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.
We cannot be indifferent to the long-lasting effects of photography. The photographs at the center of Lanier v. Harvard are relentless in making Renty and Delia Taylor work and perform as slaves. The pain inflicted on them has not ceased. Photography has the capacity to propagate harm, and we have the moral obligation to interrupt…