Sunday, March 10, 2013

Once More With Helen

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Seas, 1952, oil on canvas, 86 ⅝ x 117 ¼ inches (on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington).
By Carl Belz

(Writer’s note: The exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler paintings from the 1950s currently at the Gagosian Gallery on 21st Street naturally triggered memories of the Frankenthaler exhibition I did at the Rose Art Museum in 1981. I described the curatorial development of that exhibition in one of my Curatorial Flashbacks here on Left Bank a couple of years ago. What follows now is a brief description of my experience installing the exhibition, which turned out, not altogether surprisingly, to be a memorable collaboration with the artist herself. It was written in 1986 for a show celebrating the 10th anniversary of the museum’s patrons and friends program, which sponsored an annual major exhibition and included “Frankenthaler: The 1950s.” I have edited it slightly for the occasion.)
Helen Frankenthaler,  Jacob's Ladder, 1957, oil on canvas, 113 ⅜ x 69 ⅞ inches (MoMA, Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein. © 2013 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York).
Helen Frankenthaler was a perfectionist. Her concern extended to every mark on every picture she made and to every detail of every significant project she engaged in relation to her work. Nathan Kolodner, a former student at Brandeis who became director of the Andre Emmerich Gallery, told me as much when we first discussed an exhibition of her 1950s work in the spring of 1980, and I learned it firsthand during the various stages that led to the completion of the show a year later. For me the culminating experience in the process was the installation of the 48 paintings and works on paper that comprised the exhibition, a selection of images that I had discussed at length with the artist, that I had visited in public and private collections throughout the northeast, and that I had come to feel I knew as well as the painter who made them. Armed with confidence, I spent a week arranging the pictures in advance of Helen’s arrival preceding the Saturday evening preview of the exhibition, though I didn’t actually hang them, for I anticipated she might suggest a few changes.

Helen Frankenthaler, Eden, 1956, (Photo: Robert McKeever/© 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York). 
We walked through the show together, Helen looking quietly at the pictures, remembering them, for in many cases she had not seen them in the flesh since they left her hand more than 20 years earlier. Certainly she had not seen them assembled as she was seeing them at that moment, and I began to realize that what I assumed was a triumph--the full spectrum of her first decade of achievement--was also her vulnerability, a laying bare of her initial urge in the direction of genuinely ambitious painting. She admitted as much, acknowledging the nervousness she had felt on her way to the museum, but she also said she was deeply satisfied with how everything looked, and she congratulated me for my knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the work, asking in conclusion if I would mind if we rearranged a few pictures.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mother Goose Melody, 1959, oil on canvas, 81 ¾ x 103 ½ inches (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis). 
During the next three hours we moved every picture at least once, many of them several times, and a show gradually emerged that I had not seen before. While I had tried to indicate subtly the work’s chronological development, Helen pretty much discarded that textbook approach. Treating the entire museum space like a stretch of raw canvas and each image like a gesture to be expressed within it, she created an environmental painting right there on the spot. And a wondrous painting it was, allowing each part to stand on its own but at the same time generating among those parts an internal rhythm that revealed each more fully. I received a lot of credit for that installation. That I could not accept it was fully compensated for by what I had learned in watching it happen.

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University. 


Simon Zabell said...

Thank you for that, I've long been a Frankenthaler fan but was unfamiliar with 'Eden', which shocked me because it brings Frankenthaler close to post painterly abstract painters, something I hadn't felt before.

Peter Reginato said...

Great Carl...and I saw the show at Gagosian on 21st ...the words coming out of my mouth at the opening and others were saying the same was "mind blowing" "Killer painting"

Unknown said...

Thanks for the nice first hand description of working with a great artist.