How Will Helen Frankenthaler's Art Stand the Test of Time?: An Assessment

How Will Helen Frankenthaler's Art Stand the Test of Time?: An Assessment
Helen Frankenthaler in her New York studio, c. 1957
(Photo by Gordon Parks / Getty Images)

Helen Frankenthaler, the über-sophisticated doyenne of second-generation Abstract Expressionists painters who died last week at the age of 83, led an action-packed life in the ever-changing epicenter of the New York art world. Now art historians and art market players are both working hard to assess how her lushly hued paintings will stand up to the test of time (and money).

James Yohe of Chelsea’s Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe gallery, who first worked with Frankenthaler at the now-defunct Andre Emmerich Gallery, says that the artist will be remembered as a vital “bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting.” While that is sure, the art historian Irving Sandler is uncertain about her lasting stature. “I don’t exactly know what will happen to her reputation,” he told ARTINFO. “It seems sort of diminished, but then that’s natural over a long period of time for all but a very few artists. Whether her reputation will rise, your guess is as good as mine.”

But if Frankenthaler’s currency stages a comeback, it won’t be the first time. Her career, or so it seems, was marked by a singular ability to gracefully dance through shifts in taste.

Born in 1928, Frankenthaler grew up in New York City in a cocoon of privilege, attending the elite Dalton School in Manhattan, where she studied under the famed Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. She achieved almost instant art-world fame in her early 20s, not long after her graduation from Bennington College — a remarkable feat for a woman artist of that or any period.

It didn’t hurt that her romantic involvement with the powerhouse art critic Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock’s key champion, launched her into the teeming 10th-street scene, rubbing shoulders with the more established likes of David Smith and Franz Kline.

Her first solo exhibition was at the then-cutting-edge Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951, the same year she was included in the storied “9th Street: Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture,” organized by Leo Castelli well before he established his eponymous gallery.

Frankenthaler, like her female painting peers Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, was closely associated with the so-called Second Generation of the New York School, working under the mountainous shadows of superstars such as Arshile Gorky, Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. Many of her peers were more in the sway of de Kooning, steering clear of Pollock for fear that “they’d turn out secondhand Pollocks.” But Frankenthaler gravitated to Pollock’s drip-shaking paintings, and, through them, soon moved into new terrain.

In fact, according to numerous accounts, Frankenthaler found her way during a studio visit with Pollock in which she witnessed his already-legendary drip-painting style, watching the artist attack the canvas from all four sides as it lay flat on the floor.

In a 1967 Art International magazine article by Gene Baro, the artist described her game-winning revelation: to follow Pollock’s lead away from brush-on-surface painting and instead pouring thinned pigment from used coffee cans directly onto unprimed cotton canvas. “Before, I had always painted on sized and primed canvas — but my paint was becoming thinner and more fluid and cried out to be soaked, not resting,” Frankenthaler recalled.

Elaborating on the experience in Barbara Rose’s 1971 monograph, Frankethaler said, “It was as if I suddenly went to a foreign country but didn’t know the language, but had read enough and had a passionate interest, and was eager to live there.”

The artist’s breakout painting, the 1952 “Mountains and Sea,” introduced her new technique. It flabbergasted both critics and fellow artists, essentially establishing her career and greatly influencing a new generation of painters in what would become known as Color Field painting. As Sandler recalls, “She figured out something interesting and original to do with Pollock, and she sort of stood out doing that.”

Her timing was impeccable. “Back then in 1958 to 1960, there was a real blood bath, and the entire Second Generation kind of got wiped out,” Sandler recalls. He attributes that slaughter to the entry of Pop art and successive movements such as Minimalism — or as he puts it, “anything that wasn’t gestural.”

“Helen seemed to avoid it, being, first of all, unlike Mitchell and Hartigan,” Sandler recalled. “She kind of moved out of the downtown art world, married Robert Motherwell, and played art politics up there.” It was then that she transitioned into her role as Earth mother of the Color Field, inspiring Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis.

In 1960, Frankenthaler had her first retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York, organized by the poet-curator Frank O’Hara. She was a mere 31 years old.

But as several art critics have noted — including Deborah Solomon in a 1989 New York Times Magazine cover story on the occasion of Frankenthaler’s long-in-coming survey at the Museum of Modern Art (organized by E.A. Carmean) — her relevance in a fast-transitioning art world later became dubious again. “The world has changed,” wrote Solomon, “but her work has not.”

But the noted abstract painter and world-class colorist, who certainly had a poetic gift for titling her beautiful paintings, hasn’t suffered in the secondary market.

Last November at Christie’s New York, for example, “Royal Fireworks,” a huge acrylic-on-canvas from 1975 sold for a record $818,500 (est. $250,000-350,000).

At Frankenthaler’s December 2009 solo show at Ameringer/McEnery/Yohe, meanwhile, paintings were on offer from approximately $400,000 to $1 million, according to Yohe.

If a major, classic Frankenthaler came to market — no doubt a distinct possibility given her recent demise — “it could go for a million or even well above that,” the dealer adds. “It would capture a big price.”

“Mountains and Sea,” for example, which is still on long-term loan from Frankenthaler to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, would easily challenge and might even hurdle the $10 million record for a work by a woman artist. That high mark is currently held by the late sculptor Louise Bourgeois, whose 2003 sculpture “Spider” sold for $10.7 million at Christie’s in November of last year.

The sale of “Mountains and Sea,” of course, is speculation, just as the bigger question of what gallery will capture the artist’s estate, now that her longtime gallery, Knoedler & Company, abruptly shut down in November under a cloud of controversy over its alleged sale of a fake Pollock. The artist’s former dealer there, Ann Freedman, who oversaw her solo exhibition "Frankenthaler at Eighty-Six Decades" at the gallery in 2008, is also a party to the lawsuit.

Yohe, for one, isn’t saying a word, though is pleased to note his gallery placed a major Frankenthaler, “Blue Form in a Scene” from 1961, with the Whitney Museum of American Art