Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001.

Abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler has died in Connecticut at the age of 83. Her painting, Canyon, 1965, is a favorite here at the Phillips and often on display. The canvas is stained by rich pools of poured paint, a method that would be adopted by other fellow members of the abstract expressionist movement. During a powerfully inspirational visit to Frankenthaler’s New York studio in April of 1953, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland saw her painting Mountains and Sea (1952) and were deeply moved by her inventive use of color and paint, bringing back techniques that would serve as the foundation of the Washington Color School painters. As quoted in Gerald Nordland’s essay, “Washington Color Painters: the first generation,” Louis said, “[Frankenthaler] showed us a way to think about and use color . . . She was a bridge between [Jackson] Pollock and what was possible.”

A Guided Visit with Morris Louis’s Seal (1959)

Seal (1959) by Morris Louis is a recent gift to the Phillips from the Marcella Brenner Revocable Trust. To celebrate the painting’s installation, National Gallery of Art Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Harry Cooper spoke at the Phillips in September, considering the artist’s technique and aesthetics. Learn more about the picture and Louis’s process through these excerpts from the talk.

Louis the Illusionist?

A visitor with Morris Louis's Seal, 1959. Photo: Katie Schuler

The great mid-century critic, Clement Greenberg, praised Morris Louis’s paintings for being “purely optical experience[s].” For Greenberg, Louis’s paintings were the pinnacle of abstraction: a celebration of the essential flatness of the canvas and primacy of color and devoid of any references to the real world.  But, fifty years on, it is hard to limit oneself to such narrow praise of these lyrically beautiful paintings.  Louis may not have used line to “draw” in the traditional sense, but he was a master at layering paints and manipulating the pours of color so as to create illusionistic spaces and objects. When describing his paintings, we almost always reach for language that refers to things that are tangible, even sculptural: curtains, caves, mountains, pillars . . .

Louis’s works highlight the arbitrariness of pigeonholing paintings or artists as being either “abstract” or “representational.” These works succeed in both worlds.

-Michèle Pollak, Gallery Educator