With the recent passing of Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928–December 27, 2011), the Walker commemorates the 60 years her paintings and prints enriched our exhibitions. We look back on our relationship with the artist that dates to the start of her practice in the early 1950s.
In 1955, a generation of younger artists, including Frankenthaler, was exploring new directions in painting that branched out of Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler’s color wash landscapes on unprimed canvases were just beginning to infuse the New York art world, and would soon designate her as an inventor of American Color Field painting— a significant recognition for a woman in an acutely male-dominated artistic terrain. The works drew the interest of Kyle Morris, a New York-based painter who was asked to curate the Walker-organized exhibition, Vanguard 1955 (October 23 to December 5, 1955). Three paintings Frankenthaler made that year were included in the exhibition of 20 emerging artists: Satellites (1955), Early Summer (1955), and Mountain Storm (1955).
While Frankenthaler was living in Saint-Jean-de-Luz with husband Robert Motherwell she painted Silver Coast (1958). The oil on canvas was lent by Andre Emmerlich gallery in New York, to the Walker Art Center’s Art Fair ’59 (pdf) (December 6, 1959 to January 3, 1959). This fair, presented by the Walker with the Collectors Club of Minnesota, brought 500 paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptures to the Twin Cities from 20 galleries across the country.
Frankenthaler’s Las Mayas (1958), a work that had just returned from documenta II the previous year, was next featured in an exhibition curated by the Walker’s former director H.H. Arnason, entitled 60 American Painters (pdf) (April 3 to May 8, 1960). The exhibition considered the present state of Abstract Expressionism, surveying its U.S. and international development since the early forties. With paintings by some of the movement’s precursors—such as Rothko, Pollock, Hofmann—were also those by artists, as Arnason wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue, whose “newer (or perhaps merely different) experiments of the last few years have embodied landscape or figure subjects which attempt to adapt the gesture of abstract expressionism,” such as Diebenkorn, Bluhm, and Frankenthaler.
The Walker Art Center accessioned Frankenthaler’s acrylic on canvas, Alloy (1967).
Artist and Printer: Six American Print Studios (December 7, 1980 to January 18, 1981) provided a close look into the collaborative working processes of contemporary artists and printers, emphasizing the prolific reemergence of lithography, etching, silkscreen, and papermaking as significant forms of artistic expression. The studios featured were Crown Point Press, Gemini G.E.L, Landfall Press, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Vermillion Editions Limited, and Universal Limited Art Editions where Frankenthaler began experimenting with lithography in 1961.
In the exhibition catalogue essay for Artist and Printer, Graham J. Beal wrote that Universal Limited Art Editions founder, Tatyana Grosman, “embarked upon a series of inspired projects by persuading artists and writers to collaborate on lengthy projects resulting in sumptuous, extensive portfolios. She persuaded Helen Frankenthaler, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and James Rosenquist, among others, to spend long periods at her house-cum-studio on Long Island, New York. During these extended collaborations, Mrs. Grosman, her printers and the artists set new standards for the printmaking medium with the exquisite and luxurious prints she published.” Frankenthaler’s 2-color lithograph, Altitudes (1976-78) was included in the Walker exhibition.
With the arrival of the Tyler Graphic Archive at the Walker in 1984, more than 1600 prints were accessioned through 2004. Many in this compendium were by artists represented in the Walker’s painting and sculpture collection, including Claes Oldenberg, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark di Suvero, Robert Motherwell, David Hockney, and Helen Frankenthaler. The works by Frankenthaler included etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts on paper that she made at Tyler Graphics between 1977 and 2000.
The exhibition, Prints from Tyler Graphics (September 23, 1984 to January 6, 1985), opened later that year. With the hundreds of prints on display was Frankenthaler’s Essence Mulberry (1977), the first work that Frankenthaler printed with Kenneth Tyler at the studio, just after she began working with him in 1976. The exhibition included a set of four woodblocks and a trial proof. Curator Elizabeth Armstrong wrote in her essay for the exhibition catalogue, “While Frankenthaler had made several woodcuts before, she still found it the most challenging technique to use. For example, instead of dark marks on a light surface, each slice into woodblock creates a blank line and the uncut portions a solid mass. Multi-colored prints require a separate block for each color, further complicating the image developing process. Yet, if Frankenthaler finds the process daunting, she has obtained outstanding results in woodcut. The fluid shapes and lush colors of her block surfaces have given new vitality to this venerable technique.”
Also on view in 1984 was Frankenthaler’s painting Alloy (1967), shown in a section of the Walker’s permanent collection exhibition, Painting and Sculpture since 1945 (July 14, 1984 to September 9, 1984).
Alloy (1967) was again included in Permanent Collection: New Installations (January 24, 1987 to January 3, 1988).
Frankenthaler’s woodcut on paper, Essence Mulberry (1977) reappeared in the Walker galleries in Portraits, Plots, and Places: The Permanent Collection Revisited (pdf) (January 7, 1992 to March 6, 1994). Instead of present developments in 20th century art through a chronology, the curators organized this exhibition in themes, one of which was color. The representative use of color by artists such as Lyonel Feininger and Joseph Stella was contrasted with color-field works by Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. On view were editions 5 and 6 of Frankenthaler’s Essence Mulberry (1977) and four unsigned block proofs, Essence Mulberry (four unsigned block proofs) (1977).
Frankenthaler’s acrylic on canvas, Red Rope (1967), was lent to the Walker by an Edina couple for The Cities Collect (September 24, 2000 to January 7, 2001), an exhibition that acknowledged the important role of collectors—including of course, T.B. Walker—in the creative life of the Twin Cities community. Nearly 200 artworks by over 120 artists from more than 60 metro-area modern and contemporary art collections were on view.
Frankenthaler’s Alloy (1967), last up in the Walker’s permanent collection exhibition in 1987, was shown again in Benches & Binoculars (November 21, 2009 to November 21, 2010). This salon-style installation, much inspired by the display of T.B. Walker’s personal collection, featured many works that hadn’t been seen in decades. It permitted viewers to lounge throughout the dense and motley gallery with binoculars to closely look at over 75 works from the Walker’s collection.
To be continued…
The Walker looks forward to many more years of remembering Frankenthaler’s prolific, courageous, and influential practice.