Working on Color

John Haber
in New York City

Helen Frankenthaler and Henri Matisse

Morris Louis described Helen Frankenthaler as a "bridge between Pollock and what was possible." Now one can picture her crossing that bridge for the first time.

Gagosian displays just under thirty paintings by Frankenthaler, large enough in number, scale, and sheer impact to fill its imposing 21st Street gallery. All date from the 1950s, the decade in which she created a second generation of Abstract Expressionism. It shows her working past the sheer density of the first generation, with a new technique of poured paint on unsized and unprimed canvas. It shows her breakthrough with Mountains and Sea in 1952, so economical that much of its stains defy description, and much of the canvas remains an empty white. It shows her able to move within a single canvas between fierce brushwork and splatters to airy spaces and from casual marks to firm structure. It shows her struggling at once with art as true to itself and true to nature, and it leaves one to wonder about the difference. Helen Frankenthaler's Mother Goose Melody (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts/ARS, 1959)

Another great colorist's working methods had to change, too. "I never retouch," Henri Matisse said in an interview, but of course he did. Twenty-five years later, in fact, he hired a photographer to document every step along the way. "Matisse: In Search of True Painting" tells both stories. Yet its heart lies with the artist's early claim, for the show is all about pairs and trios of paintings, each with its own spontaneous life. Set side by side, they get one asking what in the artist's conception has changed.

Call the first story a rising artist's boast of bold achievement—or the very nature of Modernism, in which academic art's careful planning ultimately gave way to drip painting. By 1937, though, the boast had yielded to an older man's insistence on losing nothing. Matossian, an Armenian, photographed him at work on The Large Blue Dress from before it was even blue. Lydia Delectorskaya, a studio assistant, starts lounging slightly off center, as if too bored to pose, and the canvas starts smeared only partly across the white ground. In due course, Matisse creates and disrupts its color and symmetry. He simplifies the seated woman's outlines, adds his own paintings behind her as little more than curves, fills out her ruffles, covers them over, and starts in on them again, only to trace their outlines into wet paint—but exactly what, one can ask, has changed?

A bridge so far

Gagosian shows Helen Frankenthaler struggling, first and foremost, with the legacy of Jackson Pollock. A bridge is both a connection and a way out, and painters like herself and Morris Louis very much wanted a way out. She showed the way, but it took a renewed attention to Pollock. Pollock's drips anticipated her stains, as did James Brooks, but not her deliberate step back. One painting from 1951, the year of her first solo show, has the cluttered Surrealism of an early Pollock, a style that he had himself left behind. Another has abstract figures lying about on a field much as in early Joan Miró or Arshile Gorky, in colors much like theirs, and yet another includes sand and coffee grinds—like a blend of everyday life, Jean Dubuffet, and an underground cave. And then, with the sky blues and pinks of Mountains and Sea, she let loose.

Frankenthaler did not invent the technique of poured paint, but she did mix turpentine into her bright colors so that they moved to a distant pole from Pollock's black enamel. The painting closest to Miró and Gorky already hints at a landscape by the sea, with a firm horizon line and blue background above it. But now the sea washes over everything. She reimagined oil as watercolor grown large—much as Pollock had shown what happens to drawing when it exceeds paper. Unprimed canvas became an open field of its own, a lesson that Louis and Kenneth Noland quickly took to heart. What happened next, however, may or may not follow a textbook narrative.

For those looking for the triumph of pure painting out of Clement Greenberg, her staining made painting inseparable from the canvas. For those who dismiss Frankenthaler as a lightweight, it stood for pale shades and landscape. The surprise here is not that she shunned Louis's or Noland's geometry, but that she did not simply evolve to either her greater naturalism of the 1960s or to formalism. Mountains and Sea came first, and then painting flew all over the place, almost always abstract. Less than a year could separate the myth of origins behind a title like Eden from the very real memories behind a title like Dawn After the Storm. Big paintings have thickly arched smears of black, spikes reaching for the sun, and unbalanced fields of color that concede in toughness to no one, and anyway she got there first.

Others were looking for a bridge, too—starting with Pollock himself, in his late black traceries on mostly empty canvas. Alfred Leslie was making his last gestural abstraction, and Pop Art and Gutai in Japan were on the way. Robert Motherwell may have shared his interest in cave painting. Maybe, but they did not marry until later, and that sandy grotto arrived back in 1951. "The only rule," she pronounced, "is that there are no rules." Yet made her own in the act of breaking them.

Gagosian can boast of a role that museums have often relinquished in pursuit of neglected artists and easy blockbusters. Call it old-fashioned, but the gallery has turned for a curator and consultant to John Elderfield, formerly of MoMA. It has loans from there and seven other museums, along with private collections and the artist's estate. It must take pleasure in a 1951 title, Painted on 21st Street, although the artist about to settle the Upper West Side. It pays tribute on a grand scale barely a year after Frankenthaler's death in late 2011, at eighty-three. It gives her her largest show in New York since this work was young.

Was there something gendered in her evolution after all? Her fluid movement between abstraction and nature must have freed up Joan Mitchell, who had showed alongside her in a mammoth 1951 group show of Abstract Expressionist New York. Lee Krasner was moving toward a lyrical tiling of her own. The whole idea of nature versus art had been debated forever by then, and classical theorists had declared that art itself is nature. "It's all about risks," she wrote, "deliberate risks." Neither museums nor galleries are all that much into risks these days, but this decade was playing for keeps.

"I never retouch"

The Met may love Matisse's early boast of spontaneity, but it already debunks that boast when it comes to Nude with a White Scarf in 1909. At least one of those deep shades of red was once blue, perhaps to set its subject by water. Four rooms later, the exhibition surrounds the 1937 painting with a tableau of photographs, like thumbnails in black and white. It does much the same to capture a display staged by Henri Matisse himself, at Galerie Maeght in Paris, in 1945. The show's bulk, though, points to a creative process not of retouching, but of taking a new canvas of the same size and trying again—trying, that is, to look beyond the visible. If he found his way through successive versions, why not show them all?

Henri Matisse's View of Notre Dame (Museum of Modern Art, 1914)One sees the nude, before the colors have taken over, the black outlines have thickened, and the white scarf has converted one hand into a blunt instrument. One sees Le Luxe in charcoal, gridded so that he can transfer the design and transform it with color. One sees the stone tabletop in shifting patterns beneath his apples, as a reminder to look beneath the surfaces of still life. One sees changing views of Notre-Dame, from two successive studios and over fourteen years—and from from Post-Impressionism to a single blue crossed by little more than a tree, a flash of sunlight on stone, and the bare arc in black of a bridge or a quai. The cathedral itself rises, as if lifted by the impulse to abstraction. As Matisse put it, he was out to "condense the meaning of [a] body by seeking its essential lines."

The Met applies that very quote to a young sailor's sexually charged preening in 1906—the first version willing to let paint dart and run, the second in flat colors pierced by eyes out of an African mask. And with each step, the museum sees a great artist "push further and deeper into true painting." Maybe, but New York has not exactly suffered from a shortage of Matisse or of pushing. Only two years ago, a full-dress retrospective included the changing views of Notre-Dame. It argued for a lifelong process of scraping and reworking the same images, to bring them closer to modern art. Less than a decade ago, a pairing of Matisse and Picasso told the same story.

The Met, then, has a hard act to follow, even more so after the reopened (and transplanted) Barnes Foundation, and one has to wonder why it tries. It cuts corners to prove its thesis, as in applying the early boast to a painting from five years before. It brings together sessions with a professional model, but with little in common beyond her. It undermines its own thesis, with the photographs and with still life that comes off as arbitrary reshuffling. The change from an eel to a ray along the beach at Normandy brings fresh shifting pools of light, but can it reveal the thought processes behind them? Much of the time, one cannot even know which of a pair came first.

Surely others, too, routinely returned to a subject, like Vincent van Gogh to a peasant woman or Paul Cézanne to his apples, his wife, and his mountain. (And Raphael Madonnas anyone?) The Met argues that Matisse differs by not working in series—except when he did. Then again, I am not so sure that Cézanne saw his card players as a series either, rather than a struggle. And the Met's pairings overlook Matisse's most majestic struggle as well: they give short shrift to his most important way of revisiting himself—by showing his own most ambitious works in his studio, as part of the drive for an art concerned first and foremost with his art.

And it has to give short shrift, because it just does not have the goods. A collaboration with the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen and the Pompidou Center in Paris, the show draws on them heavily, filled out with acceptable work from American collections for a total of fewer than fifty works. It offers a cheap excuse for a crowd pleaser, much like the Met's own "Regarding Warhol" or like Picasso in black and white at the Guggenheim—two other shows of demanding artists, decent work, lame excuses, and deep flaws. If I got one thing out of this cook's tour from the Seine to Nice, Collioure, Etretat, and Vence, it is how much of Matisse's color emerged from a sense of place. Luxe, Calme, et Volupté in 1904 still has the eel-shaped cloud and bright sunset of Saint-Tropez. And if I got one other thing, it is that great colorists know how to mess with their art.

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Helen Frankenthaler from the 1950s ran at Gagosian through April 13, 2013, "Matisse: In Search of True Painting" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 17, 2013.


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