Helen Frankenthaler Foundation: Fostering New Insightsby Elizabeth Smith
Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) had a long and prolific career that spanned more than five decades. She was especially prominent from the 1960s through the 1980s, with a powerful presence as one of the key artists of her generation working in an abstract mode. However, by the 1990s her work’s significance to and interest for then-current artistic discourse was waning. While she continued to be active into the early 2000s and was especially productive in the area of printmaking late in her career, at the time of her death her presence in the art world and influence on younger artists was little noted.
The numerous obituaries published on Frankenthaler refocused attention on her contributions as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, her pioneering role in catalyzing the development of the Color Field school, and other notable aspects of her career. It was against this backdrop, in 2013, that the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, established by the artist in the early 1980s, began its work as an active entity after receiving its bequest of artworks, archives and papers, intellectual property, and other assets from her estate.
A primary goal of the Foundation has been fostering new insights into Frankenthaler’s widely recognized yet at times misunderstood work. Stimulating scholarship by opening up new avenues of interpretation and supporting the development of a variety of exhibitions have been central to this effort. This has included working with Gagosian Gallery to develop numerous exhibitions, beginning with John Elderfield’s groundbreaking 2013 display of her 1950s paintings in New York.
A recent area of keen interest to scholars and curators has been Frankenthaler’s position as one of the most significant women artists of her time. During her lifetime, she distanced herself from being identified as a woman artist—an attitude typical of many artists of her generation. Yet, as stewards of her legacy in the 21st century, we see it as imperative to allow Frankenthaler’s status as a role model and hero to younger women artists to be foregrounded. Instead of closing down dialogue with those who wish to consider her work in these terms, we have engaged with such efforts, particularly in light of the importance of the discussion in today’s art world about women artists’ achievements.
An example was the Denver Art Museum’s invitation to participate in the 2016 traveling exhibition Women of Abstract Expressionism, organized by Gwen Chanzit. After much internal discussion about how Frankenthaler herself might have responded to this proposal, we decided to become lenders and supporters. In addition, we hosted Chanzit in New York to speak about the show, in one of the Foundation’s first public programs. We also welcomed art historian Katy Siegel’s interest in editing a book on Frankenthaler’s work as a point of departure for younger generations of artists—female and male—exploring new modes of abstraction. “The heroine Paint:” After Frankenthaler, published by Gagosian Gallery, included contributions by artists ranging from Carroll Dunham and Amy Sillman to Laura Owens and Sterling Ruby, who commented on Frankenthaler’s work as a touchstone in ways the artist herself might never have imagined. Siegel’s research also resulted in a critically acclaimed exhibition at the Rose Art Museum called Pretty Raw: In and Around Frankenthaler.
Also early in the life of the newly active Foundation—prior to the organization of our archives to more broadly serve researchers—we agreed to assist with writer Mary Gabriel’s research for a book on women artists of the New York School, Ninth Street Women, recently published by Little, Brown and Company. Would Frankenthaler herself have agreed to be interviewed for this project? We can’t be sure, and the answer might be no. However, aligning with our mission to enlarge understanding of Frankenthaler’s work, we believed the book to be important in advancing a new, perceptive interpretation of the artists of Frankenthaler’s circle from a social and cultural perspective.
The Foundation has initiated additional projects centering on other previously unstudied aspects of Frankenthaler’s life and work. Examples include an exhibition that Lise Motherwell, a stepdaughter of the artist and Vice President of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and I curated for the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Titled Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, it was the first exhibition to examine the significance of a specific place for the artist. It was on view this past summer in Provincetown and will be seen in an expanded form at the Parrish Art Museum in the summer/early fall of 2019. Recently the Foundation has also aided and spearheaded a number of projects focusing on Frankenthaler’s exceptional body of work in printmaking.
Finally, we recently announced two major new education initiatives, a scholarship program in painting and art history, and a prints initiative for university-affiliated museums, enabling us to expand our reach to students of art and art history. And we are in the beginning stages of a catalogue raisonné of Frankenthaler’s work, directed by scholar Douglas Dreishpoon.
is Executive Director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Previously she held curatorial positions at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.