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I won’t call it a New Year’s Resolution, but I’ve lately been thinking that I should re-examine my lack of affinity for post-war abstract painting, which I have politely mocked in these posts in the past. Now, with the death of Helen Frankenthaler yesterday, I get a chance to wrap a little context around what was before, well, just an abstraction.

Mountains and Sea (Helen Frankenthaler - 1952)

Frankenthaler was a “second-generation abstract expressionist,” which I take to mean that she was influenced by the earlier expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell (to whom she was married for 13 years) and in turn influenced other painters as the collection of styles we know as Abstract Expressionism developed over time. She was also a bit of a celebrity according to a comprehensive obituary in the New York Times. Anyone who dances with John Travolta at the White House qualifies as a celebrity in my book. It beats anything the Kardashians have ever done.

I’ve spent the morning with her work. I can connect with it to a far greater extent than I ever could with Pollock’s or Rothko’s or Motherwell’s. I can see the familiar in her paintings, things haunting and comforting. I see method, I see intent. These are the things lacking in the work of other Abstract Expressionists, at least in my eyes. Some critics have dismissed her work, I think, because of its approachability. I’ve always believed there to be a lot bit of insider’s smugness about Abstract Expressionism, not so much on the part of the artists but on the part of the critics and gallery owners who actively promoted their work. Failure to see the depth and genius in a work of Abstract Expressionism is to brand yourself a poseur.

Nature Abhors a Vaccuum (Helen Frankenthaler - 1973)

If I’m completely honest about my own work, I would have to admit that some of my photographs have relied on shape, tone, and color in much the same way as the  Color Field paintings of Frankenthaler and other 50s-vintage American Painters. I don’t think I was imitating, I think my brain just went in a certain direction for reasons of its own. I suspect that this is a natural  human tendency when we create without a specific agenda. I doubt I’ll ever become a fan of Abstract Expressionism, or even that I’ll stop mocking it from time to time, but there are pearls there among the noise. I could live with a Frankenthaler on my wall, which is more than I’d say for most of her contemporaries.

Update (12/28/2011) This article from Erik Gibson on the Wall Street Journal’s website makes a pretty compelling case for putting Frankenthaler in “…in the pantheon of American masters.”  It’s a good read.

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