Monday Modern Art Madness #20: Deep Ambient with Helen Frankenthaler’s “Contentment Island”.

This week on MMAM, i feel like taking a break from analyzing more overtly and starkly political works, and just sitting back and indulging in a piece of abstraction I quite enjoy, and find some serenity in. I guess “escapism” from current political realities of any kind is anathema to the current contemporary art world, but oh well, let the ideologies gnash their teeth harder.

Helen Frankenthaler, the quintessential second-wave, second-gen New York School abstract expressionist, is a painter that always spoke to me, and one that I have a deep fondness for in my heart. I know the usual criticisms of “WELL I CAN DO THAT!” repeated into infinity, but the thing is….you didn’t. you don’t have the same vision or thought-processes, or emotive import that Helen did with her paintings. Anyways, I don’t want to break off into a rant about art itself, it will detract from me appreciating such a pleasant work. The legendary (or infamous, depending on who you ask) art critic, and friend of Helen, Clement Greenberg, exposed her to the various New York school post-war luminaries, to which she was most inspired by the totalizing, vast and awe-inspiring chaotic works of Jackson Pollock. Her technique would evolve the style of AB-EX into what we know know as “Color-field”, taking large canvases and splashing them with huge spots of rich color, often thinning oil paint down to a watercolor consistency, and soaking or dyeing un-primed canvases with pure color. Greenberg thought of this is achieving the true flatness and medium-primacy of “modern art”, and based on Helen’s subject matter, she boldly extended the possibilities of AB-EX. Greenberg commented that the closer pure color got to the ground, to the surface of the painting, the more “freer” paint and art itself becomes of tactile and rule-based considerations. In essence, Greenberg commends Frankenthaler for creating a nebulous, flat and stained space of near cosmic openness and vastness.

I always liked Helen’s works because of this near spiritual quality to them, how open and gigantic in size they are, yet treading the line between minute drawing, dabbing, and focusing on tiny details in seas of color. She would often create these large color fields and draw on top of them in tiny splashes or razor thin lines, creating this tension only known by wide-angle nature film-makers, and pieces of vast soundscapes coupled with tiny, delicate passages of complexity found in the most sophisticated of amibent and noise music. Some works like “Grey fireworks” come off as glints in a night sky, or colorful boats dotting a vast ocean as seen from a plane. One gets that sense of sublime wonder in her abstract works.

More importantly, unlike trying to tap into some inner psychotherapeutic program through painting (like Pollock), or aestheticizing the political(like…pick any darling of contemporary art today) Helen’s body of work had and continues to have a strong appeal to me as a landscape artist, for she takes inspiration from nature, both inner feelings about the landscape, and abstracted depictions of the sea and land. Like Joan Mitchell, she is a keen observer of the natural world, the poetic, the intuitive, and this is what I certainly tried to mimic in my early explorations of abstraction.

Now we have arrived at this work in particular. A safer bet would have been to talk about her more famous work “mountain and sea”. but I feel this one is a culmination, or an exemplary piece of Frankenthaler’s Oeuvre; Later in life (another point of my fascination with her work, considering it is my medium of choice) Helen switched to acrylic paint because it allowed her more flexibility of paint application in terms of layering thick and thin passages, and unlike what oil paints do to unprimed surfaces eventually, acrylic strengthens and does not rot away unprotected canvas. Here she is using silkscreen on paper using acrylic medium. From an early age, Frankenthaler loved working on paper for its sheer immediacy of access, allowing artists to be more spontaneous, and field ideas more readily.

Frankenthaler lived in Connecticut, on Contentment Island, and painted an ode to her surroundings from an emotive lens. The painting is a vast color field of blues and turquoise, deep sea green sounded by little juts of colorful glints of white and deep green. The piece reminds me of areal photos of islands being surrounded and broken up by the changing colors of the water based on sea level changes. looking at this painting almost gives off a feeling of water surrounding you, gliding from far off tiny island to island, subtle glass-like reflections on the water’s surface. Like a lot of New York School luminaries, Frankenthaler was familiar with Zen and Japanese landscape ink paintings. She would often try to replicate the subtlety of them in a much larger scale, embracing the Zen aesthetic concept of “Ma” or “negative space” that fills an evanescent image. This is why Zen aesthetic is an aesthetics of nature, and why Frankenthaler embraced the depiction of nature, for its inexhaustible variety, yet ability to point to things as they really are (like achieving Satori through zen artistic practices).

These color field paintings to me are like ambient music, the sonic soundscapes of immense proportion are made visual, and the breaks in harmony and notation evident in these little passages of detail and brush stroke. Frankenthaler has a distinct, yet faded rhythm to her paintings, not brash and violently evident splashes and drips of pollock, you almost can’t see the actions of Helen’s work apart from those tiny drawing gestures. Never the less, the subtle rhythm is there, like shoe gaze or the most spacial of ambient music slowly pulling you in, and crawling to a change in tempo and sound without shaking you into a new phrase of the song.

These paintings transcendent Pollock, who in a huff of arrogance proclaimed “I don’t need to paint nature because I AM NATURE”, Frankenthaler says “we are all nature”. It is also funny to finally note that Helen thought of herself as a painter, and that art should speak for itself. She hated going into biographical details, finding them not very interesting, and eschewed the feminist connotations of being a “female artist” that embraces intuition over boldness or intellect, She simply said all artists possesses these numerous qualities.



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