Protecting Renoir: The Legacy of Helen Frankenthaler
Protect Renoir. A muted battle cry contained in a diaphanous knot of pinks, beefy fuscias, orange, white, and flesh on a pale blue backdrop. Helen Frankenthaler’s 1974 painting Protect Renoir can be unpacked in many ways, but the title says enough: it expresses her desire to defend the legacy of an artist, Renoir, whom she felt at the time was unfairly getting a bad rap. Simultaneously, she plumbs his palette for the colors of her own painting, as well as responding to Renoir’s manipulation of volume and sensibility with light. Frankenthaler’s work is a fierce defense of Renoir the artist, of painting, and the networks of inspiration and appropriation that artists need to survive. In setting about creating a foundation to safeguard her own legacy, Helen Frankenthaler followed this path. Protecting artists from the punishing siege of changing critical and social approaches to art, and from the public’s notoriously capricious tastes in painting also concerned her. In this case, Renoir can be protected for his own sake and for history. On another level, Protect Renoir is about protecting all painters, and protecting oneself.
In 1984 Helen Frankenthaler was arguably one of the most famous painters in America. She had been chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1966 at age 38, relatively early on in an artist’s career. She had several notable museum solo exhibitions to her credit: at the Jewish Museum curated by Frank O’Hara in 1960, and at the Whitney in 1969, which had traveled to London’s Whitechapel Gallery and then on to multiple venues in Germany. Her solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and a major monograph authored by John Elderfield was five years in the future, but she was exhibiting with Andre Emmerich and her position as a major painter was undisputed. At age 56, she decided to start The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, “when she was still in her prime,” explains Foundation Director Elizabeth Smith. “She had good legal and financial advisors who helped her to understand that this was a great way for her to safeguard her legacy and deploy her assets in the future.”
The Foundation was dormant until after the artist’s death in 2011, becoming active only in 2013 after her estate was settled. Frankenthaler had been specific about one aspect of her Foundation: the members of the Board of Directors, whom she had chosen at its inception. Clifford Ross, and Frederick Iseman, the artist’s nephews, were named as Chairman and President (respectively), her stepdaughter Lise Motherwell was named as Vice President, and Michael Hecht was made Secretary/Treasurer. Other than these personnel choices, the artist’s mandate was open: “to promote and encourage knowledge and appreciation of art by exhibition and by support of organizations.” The Board had the daunting task of conceptualizing how to use the artist’s collection of art—her own work and that of other artists she had acquired over the years—and her real estate and other assets. Frankenthaler never had interest in a museum or a shrine to herself and so what began to take form was an efficient, contemporary, and highly responsive organism for the maintenance of an artist’s reputation, as well as the execution of good works, in accordance with the way in which she had lived her life. In its short lifespan thus far, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has distributed the artist’s work through a print donation program, and has assisted artists and art historians through several endowed scholarships. Speaking most clearly through her painting, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation is seeking to “Protect Renoir” on a direct and personal level.
The idea of an artist’s Foundation is a slippery one. In this Rail series on the subject, several varietals have been examined. Institutions such as the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation were created by an artist to benefit other artists in specific situations, i.e. in dire financial difficulty. Other organizations, such as Pen + Brush, were founded to assist women artists in an environment hostile to their visibility and success. In looking at the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, we are examining an organization whose sole cause is to be an extension of the artist and her practice. “There are numerous reasons an artist establishes a foundation—some as a tax shelter or to protect assets—but most importantly, so that their assets will give back to the community of artists and their audience,” says the art historian Saul Ostrow, co-founder (with Mary Dinaburg) of Artist Legacy Planning, a new company begun in 2017 to assist artists in organizing their estates, trusts and foundations. “A foundation requires programming—educational or mentoring.” A foundation also generally has a public element: contributors can make charitable donations to further the cause, therefore making it subject to the oversight of the outside world. Ostrow further clarifies the trust/foundation distinction: “A trust alone shelters resources and allows business to continue unabated, but a foundation most often is the artist's means of advancing their vision and interests—as well as preserving their own production.”
Helen Frankenthaler traversed multiple schools and movements in her painting practice. While she began her career largely in the Abstract Expressionist camp, she moved on from that, and is considered one of the originators of color field and stain painting. “In the early work you see she’s going toe-to-toe with de Kooning, with Gorky, with Miró, sometimes all in the same painting, and it comes out Frankenthaler,” explains art critic, art historian, and long-time friend of the artist Karen Wilkin, “[but] she was never a thick-thick painter, and in 1952 she starts her soak-stain method.” The year 1952, when the artist was 23, is always writ large in narratives about Frankenthaler as it was the year she created the important painting Mountains and Sea, and the year she moved on from Abstract Expressionism and developed her own trajectory. Wilkin adds,
She said herself, you could become a disciple of de Kooning, but you could depart from Pollock, and that’s what she did, she departed. She never painted like the 10th Street people. What’s so important about her is she points a way out of that legacy and influences people who were older than she was.
Frankenthaler studied with the Mexican Modernist painter and muralist Rufino Tamayo at the Dalton School when she attended her senior year of high school in 1944. It was there that she determined that she was going to be an artist. In 1984, at age 56, she had already had an active and public art career of three and a half decades. She watched the thread of popular visual culture move from action painting into color-field abstraction and lyrical abstraction, and then veer off into Pop and minimalism. All this cultural movement seemed to have little to do with how enthusiastic or talented a particular artist or group of artists were. She saw firsthand, during and after her five-year romantic relationship with the critic Clement Greenberg in the 1950s, the uneasy associations that could crop up between the critical and collecting community, and the creatives who provided the subjects for discourse. The artists and critics of the New York School of the 1950s freely blurred the boundaries between emotional and professional relationships which led inevitably to repercussions in their careers. The only way for an artist to truly maintain a presence in the history of art, Frankenthaler adroitly realized, was to remain in the public eye consistently, and never become beholden to a specific writer or school of aesthetics or thought. This could only be achieved via active lobbying by parties devoted to a specific artist’s legacy.
At the heart of the Frankenthaler Foundation is the archive of her papers and effects. Still undergoing cataloging (a daunting task), the collection resides in a chilly, climate-controlled chamber that has been placed symbolically by architect Greg Yang at the center of the floor of the building the Foundation inhabits in Manhattan. The metaphysical axis of the Foundation is represented architecturally by a distinct band of blue-painted ducts and pipes in the ceiling, which connects the archive with the reading room. Like a solar system with binary suns, the rest of the Foundation revolves around this axis. An avid traveler and museum aficionado, Frankenthaler was aware that Europe was filled with small institutions devoted to a single artist or a school of artists. This offered preservation for an artist’s legacy, but tended to restrict their presence to a single region. The Frankenthaler Foundation is a modern take on the idea of the singular artist’s historical institution. It still retains a centralized concentration of the artist’s personality—her words and thoughts—but the goal is distinctly “global,” spinning off the works of the artist herself to as many distant points as possible, and then gently managing the repercussions from its headquarters on 26th street.
Donations from the Foundation to other institutions began to flow in 2014, mostly in the form of grants that helped cover operating expenses. BOMB Magazine, the Triangle Arts Association, and Storm King Art Center have all been beneficiaries of the Frankenthaler Foundation’s largesse. Grants have also supported specific projects like Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s Pat Steir: Artist (2018), and Kristi Zea’s Everybody Knows…Elizabeth Murray (2016), film documentaries about those artists, or Hilma af Klimt: Paintings for the Future the blockbuster exhibition held last year at the Guggenheim Museum (October 12, 2018–April 23, 2019). The Foundation also has just announced the donation of a major oil on canvas, Vessel (1961), to the Tate Modern in London as part of a room of loans curated by Mark Godfrey and Hannah Johnson. The two largest disbursements of funds were made to Frankenthaler’s high school and college alma maters, Dalton and Bennington College (from which she graduated in 1949), to enhance the art programs at both schools. This summer of 2019 saw the first specific initiatives emerging from the Foundation, the Frankenthaler Prints Initiative and the Frankenthaler Scholarships program.
On the one hand, the Foundation accomplishes Frankenthaler’s poetic goal of “Protecting Renoir”—as directed towards her own work—by maintaining a steady stream of critically acclaimed exhibitions about various aspects of her work, and situating important texts (such as a Catalogue Raisonné, a project being spearheaded by Douglas Dreishpoon, chief curator emeritus of the Albright-Knox Gallery) in academia. It has also pushed itself to open its doors to scholars while still tackling the monumental task of assessing what is actually contained in its archive. Mary Gabriel, author of the book Ninth Street Women (2018), worked extensively in the archive in preparation for her book, and art historian Alexander Nemerov has also been conducting research in the archive for an upcoming monograph on Frankenthaler. A more immediate project is the Prints Initiative, which is tasked with distributing a percentage of Frankenthaler’s voluminous quantity of printed works in the Foundation’s collection to university museums. Accompanied by a grant of $25,000, these donations are calculated to trigger innovative exhibitions about Frankenthaler throughout the United States, and perhaps at some point further afield.
“Protecting Renoir” also takes the form of supporting student artists and academics through scholarships, the most altruistic gifts the Foundation bestows. Supporting an art student/emerging artist in no way will guarantee that Helen Frankenthaler will remain a household name among contemporary artists and audiences. But, unlike Gottlieb or Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, which distribute money to established artists in need, the new Frankenthaler scholarships are given to artists at a formative period. By supporting artists while they are studying, and focusing exclusively on painters, the Frankenthaler Foundation directly involves itself with their growth at an early stage.
Both of the Frankenthaler Scholarship recipients interviewed for this article were women, but the artist scholarships are not solely for women, and the beneficiaries of the Museum Fellows Term at Bennington—formerly an all women’s institution—are not solely for women. The artist herself was equivocal on the matter of feminism in the visual arts. Frankenthaler was never an advocate of any kind of special protections or support of women in art. In this she was far from alone; many of her contemporaries—Louise Nevelson, Perle Fine, and Joan Mitchell, to name a few—had little patience with the idea that women needed supplementary aid. Though this may seem an untenable position, as all of those women had suffered gender-based disadvantages (and were aware of these disadvantages), they believed that talent would inevitably rise to the top. One simply had to be persistent (and talented). Suffice it to say that analyzing this anodyne attitude, and the reasons these particular women succeeded as artists while many other of their female peers were unable to gain any acknowledgment for their practices could fill an entire book. As attempts are increasingly being made to describe a more accurate history of human artistic creativity, the Frankenthaler Foundation has intelligently decided to lend the artist’s name-recognition to efforts such as Women of Abstract Expressionism (June 12–September 25, 2016) at the Denver Art Museum, curated by Gwen Chanzit, rather than to cling to Frankenthaler’s own tenor of more “rugged individualism.” The educational programs of the Foundation, such as the Bennington Scholars Program, a program that brings art history majors from Frankenthaler’s alma mater to New York for a semester, and the MFA scholarship endowments, will primarily support painters and the study of visual art, which was Frankenthaler’s all-encompassing passion.
The Foundation supports MFA candidates enrolled at four leading institutions: Yale, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia, and UCLA. All recipients are painting students and so while the support is entirely without requirements regarding any interest in, influence by, or attachment to Frankenthaler the artist, it does maintain the overall genre of the artist herself. For this article, two of the four 2019 recipients were interviewed. Nicole Doran and Alex Heilbron are both second year MFA candidates in painting, Doran at the Art Institute of Chicago and Heilbron at UCLA. In discussion with these two scholarship recipients, their pre-knowledge of Frankenthaler came up: had they been aware of, or been affected by the artist in their own work? Both of them had known Frankenthaler’s painting, and had been aware of her stature within the painting world, but had questioned either many of the stylistic associations with her, or the overall contemporary critical response to Abstract Expressionism (i.e. That it was too male-dominated or too enshrined within certain readings of the cannon to be integrated in a contemporary practice). But both artists’ work clearly embodies responsiveness to pre-existing techniques and a willingness to explore that is also present in Frankenthaler’s work. “Since being a recipient of the grant, I’ve looked at a lot of Frankenthaler’s work, and have found a connection to her paintings, especially in their honesty and simplicity. Her work is technically and formally almost the complete opposite of the work that I make, and I feel that there is a lot to learn from it,” Heilbron explained.
Heilbron’s work is alternately figurative or text based, and integrates tropes of advertising and narrative painting, creating an uneasy balance between recognition of the stylistic references and the acknowledgment of darker, looming interpretation. “In the past year I’ve been thinking about ornament, patterning, and decoration and how these things can be autonomous from the function of the thing into or with which it has been integrated,” explains Heilbron. “I don’t believe the conversation that painters have should be sheltered from other mediums—each medium has its own specific formal and technical conversation [and] there is room for the social and political questions and the demands of our time to overlap and span across different disciplines.” In this regard, she shares Frankenthaler’s voracious interest in media other than two-dimensional representation. Frankenthaler also worked in sculpture; most notably producing a series of steel sculptures in Tony Caro’s studio in the summer of 1972 and also was devoted to poetry and music.
Nicole Doran returned to graduate school in her 30s in order to create another platform for her work through teaching. Krasner presented a greater inspiration for her practice than Frankenthaler, and her inspirations derive from contemporary artists such as Charline von Heyl and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Much of her recent work, a hybrid of painting and three dimensions through ceramic appliqués, aesthetically navigates many of the issues that also faced Frankenthaler such as brushstroke, transparency, and the presence and materiality of the medium. Doran describes her work as “macramé and ceramics on top of abstract paintings, continuing to layer them with other abstractions, but with alternative materials.” The gritty and glistening sheen of the green-tinted resin coating Disgust for your Molecular Love, a recent work by Doran, bears only slight resemblance to Frankenthaler’s Blue Reach (1978), currently on view in Frankenthaler and Motherwell: The Art of Marriage at the Mnuchin Gallery (October 30-December 14, 2019), but the disarming glittering particles embedded in Frankenthaler’s blue stains activate the same zone of perception as Doran’s multilayered assemblages.
Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity (June 29- October 20, 2019), at the Princeton University Art Museum was the first museum project associated with the Frankenthaler Foundation Prints Initiative. A donation of ten prints and five proofs included works such as Green Likes Mauve (1970) from the series “Four Pouchoirs,” and Dream Walk (1977), along with four trial proofs of that work in different shades and colors. The Princeton Museum then expanded this group of works, spanning several periods of the artist’s work, along with the substantial loan of Seven Types of Ambiguity, the artist’s landmark painting from 1957, from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The other works came from various collectors, from the Foundation itself, and the Princeton Museum’s own collection, including many more Frankenthaler prints, as well as works by Tamayo, Avery, Goya, and Degas. The result was an in-depth consideration of the artist’s inspirations and working methods. Not surprisingly, the exhibition was a major draw in the region. “One of the most notable responses to the Frankenthaler exhibition has been from artists from Trenton, Philadelphia, and New York who came to see the show and took the time to share their perspectives,” commented Princeton Museum Director James Steward. “I would say [these] were often responses of marvel at what Helen was able to achieve technically as a printmaker, of how this caused them to think differently about her work as a painter, of how dangerous and audacious and thus relevant the work remains.” The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts will stage an exhibition in 2020 curated by high school students from its Youth Council and featuring the Frankenthaler Foundation’s print donation in addition to two other unrelated collections of prints.
Lastly, there is Helen Frankenthaler herself who emerges from the shadows of her own organization, and this acquaintance is the most ambitious but difficult task for a foundation to accomplish. Unlike the spotty and often misleading accounts of their predecessors, the public lives of contemporary artists are often afflicted by an over-abundance of data—sometimes we may know a bit too much. As many artists face a reckoning at this moment in time for behavior that doesn’t play well with the amount of adoration they receive for their work, it is often necessary for their foundations to become more circumspect in how they present their subjects. Helen Frankenthaler’s stature, via Ninth Street Women has become a rosy one, though it needn’t be. This seems inevitable based on the sheer quantity of information about her every movement and thought that exists, within the archive of the Foundation in the form of letters and documents going well back into the artist’s early life. Other archives of Frankenthaler information exist at other institutions, such as Syracuse University, where half of her correspondence with Grace Hartigan (1922–2008) resides, as well as at Princeton, where an entire lifetime of letters written to her friend and Bennington College classmate Sonya Rudikoff (1927–1997) are housed.
Frankenthaler and Motherwell: The Art of Marriage, curated by Karen Wilkin, the current exhibition at the Mnuchin Gallery, is a testament to how well we now know the life of this artist, both from her lasting reputation, and also from the concerted efforts of the Foundation. In the last few years, Frankenthaler has become much more of a living personality in American art history. One knows almost immediately that Robert Motherwell was Frankenthaler’s second great love, after Clement Greenberg, and that by the time she and Motherwell were making their work in tandem, she had transitioned far away from Abstract Expressionist painting. It was a relationship where both artists were cross-fertilizing each other’s ideas, and the show’s premise is far less obscure and esoteric than it might have seemed even a decade ago. While her Foundation hasn’t existed that entire time, it certainly has maintained a quiet but determined driver’s seat position, gently massaging the academic and public impression of one of America’s most accomplished, as well as complicated, artists. Simultaneously with the Mnuchin exhibition, an artist room devoted entirely to Frankenthaler featuring the donated Vessel and supplemented with additional loans from the Foundation opened November 15 at the Tate Modern in London.
“Protect Renoir” (one last time). Through her long association with Frankenthaler, Wilkin realized that the artist believed that the key to protecting her own, and any relevant artist’s legacy, was understanding its origins. She worked on several exhibitions over the years, tracking Frankenthaler’s inspirations. Through these collaborations, Wilkin gained a unique insight into Frankenthaler’s drive to explain her work’s beginnings, whether these inspirations emanated from her colleagues, partners, or historical artworks. The artist also realized that influencing future generations of artists would allow her to have a continuing legacy. She was keenly interested in visiting with younger artists and advising them during the course of studio visits. One particular story seemed emblematic of Frankenthaler’s tough but humorous approach: “She was in [painter] Sandi Slone’s studio. I was with her and she spent a long time with Sandi. She took Sandi’s work very, very, seriously,” recounts Wilkin. “Sandi was using a push broom at that point, [and] as Helen was starting to leave, she looked over her shoulder and she said ‘don’t get too attached to the broom,’ which was good advice, because Helen used a million different ways of putting on paint. And then she said, ‘and you shouldn’t do floors or windows either.’”