Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Gagosian Gallery Puts On A Frankenthaler Show To Rival Any Museum's.

In recent years, the Gagosian Gallery has had the occasional comprehensive exhibition of an important artist that rivals that of any museum's.  "Painted on 21st Street:  Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959" is one such show.  Indeed it is curated by the Museum of Modern Art's Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, John Elderfield, with the aid of the Frankenthaler estate:  All the paintings are on loan either from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation or institutions such as museums.  I don't like to sound cynical, but I presume the purpose of putting on such events is really to enhance the gallery's sales ability by trying to establish a reputation as venerable cultural institution, as much as commercial enterprise.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining!  The opportunity to see great art is always welcome, particularly if the viewing is free!
Mountains and Sea, 1952.

The Gagosian even has a museum quality catalog put together with an intro by Elderfield.  At a hundred bucks, it's too expensive for me, but the gallery makes a copy available to peruse (which I took full advantage of).  Elderfield  points out that while these paintings aren't descriptive they are nevertheless depicitive.  In other words, although they are non-representational, non-narrative they are still figurative.  He also points out that the mind tends to interpret forms as positive objects and the surrounding area as background.  Also, According to him, Frankenthaler drew inspiration from landscapes, which is certainly suggested by some of the titles:   i.e., Abstract Landscape, 1951; Mountains and Sea, 1952; Ed Winston's Tropical Garden, 1957.  It is also suggested by compositional elements, such as low and mid-level dominant horizontal lines or shapes that tend to divide the compositions into foreground, mid-ground and/or far-ground.  Although, with their amorphous, and seemingly primal forms, Frankenthaler's paintings seem more like  landscapes of the mind, or dreamscapes, than anything tangible.
Eden, 1956.

Like first generation abstract expressionists, Pollack, Gorky and de Kooning, Frankenthaler was perhaps influenced by Jungian notions of archetypes and the collective unconscious; also, by surrealist automatism.  That is suggested by Frankenthaler's occasional use of titles that reference mythology (i.e., Eden; Jacob's Ladder; Europa).  And by her amorphous forms, which in aggregate give the impression of some sort of primordial soup.  While the forms are ambiguous, they tend to be suggestive enough to be associative images.  In Eden, for example, in the upper left corner the amorphous yellow form is somewhat suggestive of a child's painting of a sun; upper right-of-center a red form is suggestive of a reaching hand.  But, because the forms are all ambiguous the overall impression is of a free-flowing associative process.  Sort of like how the mind functions, which gives the paintings, or the act of viewing them, a mimetic aspect.

While the artwork in this show predates Frankenthaler's innovations in color field painting, her interest in color is very apparent here.  Indeed, Elderfield describes Mountains and Sea as a bridge between her abstract expressionist paintings and color field ones.  And, the colors tend toward the organic:  Beiges, browns, pale pinks and ochers dominate with an occasional blue that tends to read as sky, sea or shadow.  In addition to being gorgeous to look at, the muted colors appear much the way colors do to the mind's eye.  As a result, Frankenthaler's palette conjures a mental landscape,consisting of random images and/or thoughts.  So, the color contributes to the paintings' mimetic quality.

Seeing this show was a reminder that abstract art is never content free.   (Show me contentless "art" and I'll show you wallpaper!)  Many of the abstract expressionists found their subject matter by looking inward to find a commonality or the archetypal in our "collective unconscious"----Frankenthaler appears to have done so.

The show is at the Gagosian Gallery, 522 West 21st Street, NY, NY.  Unfortunately, it only runs through the 13th.  

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