Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.
Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.
What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.
Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern
This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week. Read the introductory post here.
On March 5, 1770, an argument broke out between a colonist and two British guards outside of the Custom House in Boston. It escalated to a riot between Bostonians and the British guards, resulting in the deaths of five colonists. This incident was almost immediately immortalized in Paul Revere’s famous engraving The Bloody Massacre, which aimed to cement the brewing anti-British sentiment among the colonists with its inclusions of controversial and falsified details. In stark contrast to Revere’s propagandist agenda, Jacob Lawrence’s interpretation Massacre in Boston focuses on the struggles of the American colonists by portraying them rallying around their wounded compatriot. There was not a single British soldier in the painting.
Fast forward to 1955 when Lawrence worked on this panel, the year that African Americans rallied around the death of Emmett Till, a young African American boy murdered by two white men in Mississippi. The culprits were not convicted of homicide. Through the media attention the case garnered, it was transformed into the symbol of the disparities of justice and rights for African Americans. In both of these episodes in American history, the power of the people is emphasized. This aspect is conveyed in Lawrence’s work with his focus on groups of figures coming together, fighting for a common cause.