Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Curatorial Flashbacks: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

By Carl Belz
Helen called a few days after we’d given our printer the green light to proceed with the catalog for Frankenthaler: The 1950s, which would open at the Rose in early May 1981 but had already been in the works for about a year. She had been reading again the draft of my essay for the catalog (it was my curatorial practice, when working with living artists, to share my words with them in order, hopefully, to avoid surprises and misunderstandings), and she wasn’t keen on my use of the word glamour in describing how she had entered the New York art world fresh out of Bennington College in 1949 and at once encountered personally such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, and Franz Kline. She said glamour was associated with celebrities, with movie stars, for instance, while she was just a painter, and would I mind using another word instead?

Which I said I’d be glad to do, for it wasn’t the first time Helen had called about the catalog—only the first time after our printing deadline had passed—and by then I’d gotten my blinders on, determined that nothing, least of all my ego, would keep me from reaching the only goal that had come to matter to me, which was to make the exhibition the best it could be. To that end, I had earlier agreed to put on hold a chunk of my original essay. It was a coda to the body of the text, which dealt with the criticism of Frankenthaler’s work that had appeared during the 1950s, and it focused on how that criticism, which, despite its generally favorable consensus, had nonetheless reflected the male-dominated perspective of the time, a perspective through which she usually came up short of her male counterparts. But Helen didn’t go for the coda, she said she didn’t see herself as a woman artist, she just saw herself as an artist, and she said the show wasn’t about that kind of issue anyway. When I objected that the gender question was historically important in illuminating critical bias, she expressed confidence that a more appropriate context for my observations would present itself on another occasion.  
Of course there were also times when I did the calling—to keep Helen informed about loans for the show, to ask her advice about approaching one or another of the collectors, and so forth. At one point, for instance, a problem came up with MoMA and our request to borrow Jacob’s Ladder, a magisterial stain picture from 1957. I’d written William Rubin, Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, described the project and its significance, and included loan forms—all standard operating procedure—and I’d gotten back a form letter telling me that stain paintings are very delicate, that my request had come on very short notice, that blah, blah, blah, and that, no, they couldn’t lend the painting. All of which I told Helen in a depressed phone call, in response to which she told me to sit tight, maybe there was something she could do. Which I guess there was, because I got a call the very next day from one of Rubin’s assistants saying how pleased MoMA would be to lend Jacob’s Ladder to our very important exhibition. Then I remember thinking, “There’s stuff going on here that they didn’t teach me about in school.”
Helen Frankenthaler, Jacob's Ladder, 1957. Oil on canvas, 
113 3/8" x 69 7/8" Museum of Modern Art, New York, 
Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein

I called Helen again when I was stumped—and oddly amused—about dealing with television journalist Lesley Stahl. She owned a picture we very much wanted, First Class Motel Bedroom (1959), but she was reluctant to lend it because it would leave an empty space on her wall for about four months. Without pause, Helen suggested I call Andre—Andre Emmerich, her dealer for many years—which I did, and he said the gallery would be pleased to lend Ms. Stahl a replacement picture, it was no problem, they’d done it before, and it occasionally led the collector to a new acquisition—thus, a good deal all around. And far more pleasant than my telephone encounter with the collector in Omaha, Nebraska, that took place at about the same time—the collector who, I’ve forgotten his name, told me he’d lend his picture only on the condition that I would reproduce it in color on the cover of the catalog. For that one I didn’t call Helen, and I didn’t call Andre, I just told the collector I’d find some way to struggle along without his painting. 

So everything was set by the end of February—the essay, the checklist, the reproductions, even the acknowledgments, plus a bonus in the form of a gorgeous poster of the breathtaking Open Wall (1952-53) that Helen was personally having produced in time for the opening on May 10. Still, I was anxious, exceedingly anxious, about Mountains and Sea. Mountains and Sea, the 1952 painting that, if there were such a thing as Helen’s signature painting, would have to be Helen’s signature painting. The painting that had seemed to assume legendary status even before its surface was dry, the painting that was famously said to have provided a bridge between Pollock and what was possible, the painting that art history books had singled out as having launched the entire color field movement. And the painting, alas, that wasn’t going to be in our show. 
Helen Frankenthaler. Mountains and Sea, 1952. 
Oil and charcoal on canvas. 86 5/8" x 117 1/4" 
On extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

How, I asked myself, could that be? How could we have an exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler’s work in the 1950s, her first decade, the decade that established her as a major contributor to the art of our time, without including Mountains and Sea? It wasn’t that it couldn’t have been included: It was accessible, it was right down the road in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; moreover, Helen owned it, it was only on loan to the National Gallery, meaning she could ask, within reason, to have it shown wherever and whenever she wished. 

To understand how it was that Mountains and Sea would not be in the exhibition, you have to accompany me back to the fall of 1980 and my first face-to-face discussion with Helen about the checklist for the exhibition. I’d sent her my tentative list, chronologically ordered, and we started going through it together, Helen agreeing to one title, then to another, and another, until we got to Mountains and Sea, at which point she said, “No, not Mountains and Sea.”  

Not Mountains and Sea?” I repeated incredulously. 

“No, no,” she calmly remarked, “It’s a wonderful picture, but it’s very delicate, and I’m very happy with where it is now. Besides, including it would be like having a terrific exhibition of late 15th Century Florentine painting and putting the Mona Lisa right in the middle of it.”

Stumped for a response, I continued through the list and then retreated to Boston. There was a lot to do, but much of it was registrarial—contacting donors, pursuing loans, arranging to have reproductions made—leaving me plenty of time to study the criticism that had tracked Helen during the 1950s and get ready to write about it, and plenty of time, too, to fret about Mountains and Sea and envision being embarrassed by its absence from what was otherwise shaping up to be a dynamite show. At one point I called the marvelous Maureen—Helen’s assistant, Maureen St. Onge, the person who kept Helen’s world turning ever smoothly, the person, it seemed to me, that Helen couldn’t have been without—and asked if she could put in a word for the picture, knowing all along that that was in my job description, not hers.       

So I gave it another shot late in the calendar year in a meeting at which Helen and I planned to finalize the checklist. Again, we went through it chronologically, Helen agreeing to one title, then to another, and another, until we got to Mountains and Sea—I stubbornly included it, as if refusing to believe Helen had actually nixed it—at which point she said, “No, not Mountains and Sea.” 

“But Helen!” I stammered…

“No, no,” she calmly remarked. “It’s a wonderful picture, but it’s very delicate, and I’m very happy with where it is now. Besides, including it would be like having a wonderful Faberge exhibition and putting the Hope Diamond right in the middle of it.” 

Well, that did it, I didn’t have the energy to go another round, I resigned myself to the fact that there’d be no Mountains and Sea in our exhibition, I did what I had to do, I got over it. And guess what? Mirabile dictu, the exhibition was an unqualified triumph—for Helen, for the Rose Art Museum, and for me as well. We got a glowing review from Hilton Kramer on page 1 of the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section, our attendance swelled as never before in my experience, and, through the course of the show, I was regularly congratulated by art world acquaintances and professional colleagues for my curatorial decision to leave Mountains and Sea out of the mix—they even called it courageous. In response, I generally smiled modestly, bowed my head slightly, and softly acknowledged, “It’s a wonderful picture, but it just seemed so obvious to include. Besides, it would have skewed all of the other great pictures in the exhibition.” And then I went ahead and told them the truth!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post on this show. I was a student at the Boston Museum School at the time and saw it with my teacher and friends. It was wonderful for me to view first hand as I was painting abstractly at the time. But I have to admit, I was disappointed that the famed "Mountains and Sea" was not included. I did not see it until a few years later--
I have very fond memories of many of the exhibitions at the Rose.

Charles Kessler said...

Kyle Gallup wrote the above comment. It wasn't intended to be anonymous.

Victoria Webb said...

I found this blog via James Lourie's Facebook reposting today, of Carl Belz's piece about Hofmann's energetic later years.

Fascinating to read this tale about Frankenthaler and the intricacies of mounting an exhibit.
Her confidence about what should and should not be included must have been formidable.

Dixie Redmond said...

I enjoyed reading this so much. Thank you for writing it.

Chip Brock said...

That's a great story Carl, thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

So wonderful to have this inside view. Thanks so much. Her paintings are delicate. As a one time conservator I can see how a slight bump or scratch would endanger the surfaces. Unfortunately also, the paintings are having trouble retaining the color intensities.. But then we all grow quieter with the passage of time.