Helen Frankenthaler at her Connecticut studio in 2003. Photo by Suzanne DeChillo\ New York Times.

Artist Helen Frankenthaler, a key figure in American abstract painting in the 20th century, died Dec. 27 at 83. Which sent me back to the excellent "Selected Art Writings" of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Schuyler. His short reviews, which ran in ARTNews from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, are among the most astute criticisms of visual art on record. They're also fun to read.

The book, edited by SImon Pettet and published by Black Sparrow, includes two short Schuyler reviews of Frankenthaler exhibits.

Frankenthaler, born in 1928, followed a 1960 retrospective at the Jewish Museum (catalog by poet Frank O'Hara) with a show that same year at Emmerich gallery in New York. Upon seeing it, Schuyler wrote that he sensed "a remarkable shift in the character of her work." He went on to write, in part:

Subtlety, even on a big scale, matters. She is a painter who has always relied on her awareness of her unconscious, finding in its immediacy a relevance as subject matter, a taking-off point which, usually, was not the "subject" of the picture. An abstract painting may contain plainly sexual symbols; but that scarcely constitutes their plastic worth: any scribbled-on Ohrbach's ad in the subway would be hustled into a museum, or at least a gallery, if that were so. Part of Miss Frankenthaler's special courage was in going against the think-tough and paint-tough grain of New York School abstract painting. Often pale (not weak), soaked in (only sometimes), quickly dwelt upon--she not only chanced beauty in the simplest and most forthright way, like a river reflecting clouds and evening, but she has relied upon a sensibility altogether feminine. This year she put to vivid use opaque light color on a smooth white ground: blues, splatters, black for narrative, and the secured slipping of the pigment implying and provoking a sense of a new certainty.

Schuyler said Frankenthaler's "Figure and Thoughts" in the Emmerich show was "her finest canvas to date."

In the mid-1960s, Frankenthaler recognized her admiration for the poet and critic in a lithograph titled "Postcard for James Schuyler," below.  

"Postcard for James Schuyler, by Helen Frankenthaler. Image courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walker Art Center has more than 100 Frankenthaler works in its permanent collectiion, mostly works on paper, but including a monumental 1967 painting titled "Alloy."

Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal assesses Frankenthaler's influence on 20th-century painting here.

Go here for her obituary in the New York Times. 


"Nature Abhors a Vacuum," a 1973 painting by Helen Frankenthaler. Image courtesy the National Gallery of Art.




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