How a Moment of Crisis Led Helen Frankenthaler to Create an Iconic Artwork

Helen Frankenthaler came in to the studio at two in the afternoon, moaning and groaning. She had just rented this working space on West 23rd Street, a few blocks down the street from her London Terrace apartment. The studio was a quiet skylighted loft in the back of the building. A canvas lay on the floor before her. Inspired by the art of Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings she had first encountered some two years before, she set to work.

The canvas at her feet was unprimed. She had not bothered to apply the primer, a mix of Dutch Boy white lead and glue that like other artists she typically used as a ground to prevent the colors from bleeding directly into the canvas. “I might have been very impatient to paint,” she recalled years later, and in a combination of “impatience, laziness, and innovation decided why not put it on straight?” She thinned out her paints with turpentine, curious to see how they would soak and stain into the big empty canvas—seven by ten feet—beneath her.

Her first move was not to paint but to draw. She made a few charcoal lines clustering in the center of the big sheet. The lines suggested forms but only as an armature for what followed. Then she laid on the turpentine-thinned colors, blue and pink and salmon and red and sea-foam green, watching as they pooled and stained. The blue flared to the sides from a central fulcrum of pink and red, playing in and around the charcoal underdrawing, which it both respected and ignored. After three hours she stopped and called her studio-mate, the painter Friedel Dzubas, to take a look. “The point is, the point is,” Dzubas said in his German accent, trying to find the words.

Neither of them had seen anything like it before. There seemed to be no order. Angry detractors would say it looked like a rag for wiping brushes. But Helen felt each element was poised on a fragile edge of clarity, even of flaring neatness, like a wave risen to perfection at the moment before it spends its energy and falls apart. Spontaneity and structure seemed to flow through each other without ever touching, making something buoyantly free and vulnerably honest. Helen was “aware I’d made something new and shouldn’t fool with it one bit further.” She called the painting Mountains and Sea and signed it neatly in the lower right corner, dating it 10/26/52.

At the time she was 23 years old, her future as an artist was uncertain. She had trained intensively as a painter at Bennington College in Vermont, and after moving back to her native Manhattan after graduation, she entered the city’s small and serious modern art circle. She met the formidable art critic Clement Greenberg in 1950 and began dating him in a relationship that would last for five years. Greenberg introduced her to Pollock’s art and to Pollock himself, enforcing what she already knew but needed to hear: namely, that no art is good “intellectually,” that the greatest paintings are the ones that deliver a “charge.” Helen’s work did not look anything like Pollock’s, but his drip paintings “opened up what one’s own inventiveness could take off from.” Mountains and Sea was one such invention. Greenberg, coming to her studio, loved it. But Helen had her doubts—not about the painting (she never doubted her art), but about her direction in life.

The cover for 'Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York' by Alexander Nemerov.

Earlier that month she undertook a half-serious job search. “I’ve seen three people about a job on Life or Time,” she wrote to her best friend Sonya Rudikoff on October 6. She would take a position at Life if offered one and relegate her painting to off hours, but she was not especially excited about it. The white-collar efficiency of the magazine was not to her liking. “The people that walk around the offices are almost frightening: brisk, alert, ‘sophisticated,’ Vassar and Yalish, thin, and groomed. Up and down the 36 floors of the Time Inc. building they talk fast smart chatter. I don’t know if I could stand it.” Mountains and Sea—whatever it was—was not that.

Nor was it a political statement. Helen made the painting only nine days before the presidential election of 1952. Like Greenberg, she was a supporter of the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson, in his campaign against the Republican Dwight Eisenhower. Early in October she contemplated working on Stevenson’s Professional and Business Women’s Committee. A well-to-do Bennington and Manhattan liberal—her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice and a friend to many during the Depression—Helen found Eisenhower’s running mate, Richard Nixon, “schmaltzy, low-class, and sickening.” When Eisenhower won the election in a near landslide, gaining 442 electoral votes to Stevenson’s 89, she was discouraged. Mountains and Sea, its paint still wet, still felt serious but also incidental among these momentous changes.

Events in the Frankenthaler family also exerted their pull. Back in 1950 Helen’s beautiful and imperious mother had begun suffering from a mysterious illness that turned out to be Parkinson’s. By fall 1952 the situation was dire and stressful. Also that fall Helen’s two sisters were having babies. Helen, the youngest, was not ready to start a married life, let alone one with children. But her bohemian life as an artist seemed maddeningly vague by comparison. When Rudikoff set sail for England with her husband in late September, Helen burst into tears. “I felt that my own life had stopped as I stood on the deck and posed for the pictures and saw all the people going someplace.”

Yet the despondency made her turn to her art with renewed focus. “Each crisis, if properly realized, can turn into production,” she wrote on October 6. “I feel full of hope and resolution these days.” Mountains and Sea, painted 20 days later, was a venture in speculative freedom, an independent journey of her own, away from known shores. Deceptively casual, to this day it wants nothing of fixities and labels. The forms dance as if forever suspended in some pause of time. And back of that pause is some nameless feeling of the artist’s own, her drive to cede darkness to day.

From Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. ©2021 Alexander Nemerov.

“I feel full of hope and resolution these days,” the artist wrote before making a breakthrough.Read MoreArtists, ARTnews, Abstract Expressionism, Clement Greenberg, Helen FrankenthalerARTnews.comRead More

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