Now seventy-two, Frankenthaler describes the experience and occasional joy of painting abstractions

“Making a message; giving a message”


Helen Frankenthaler has created work in a variety of different ways. She has written poetry and short stories, art criticism and art history. She’s experimented with ceramic, tapestry, set design and even with welded steel sculpture in Anthony Caro’s London studio. But at heart Frankenthaler is a prolific and profound American painter whose influence has been immense. Morris Louis described her work as “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible”.

Tim Marlow went to visit Helen Frankenthaler in her Connecticut studio, on the water overlooking the Long Island sound, and talked to the seventy-two-year old painter about her long and celebrated career, from the heady days of the New York school in the early Fifties to her most recent work, which is currently being shown in London at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery.

Tim Marlow: I remember interviewing Robert Rauschenberg about two years ago when he had his large retrospective at the Guggenheim and he said that remembering the past was often very painful and that people expected you to go through all the same old territories. I wonder if you feel the same?

Helen Frankenthaler: I don’t find it painful. If anything, I often find it refreshing. When you look back on some of those days, many of them were very exciting and creative, and invigorating. Comparisons are odious; but right now the flavour of the time is so different from the early fifties. Also, as one gets older, one doesn’t have the same sense of an artistic community and levels of energy change.

TM: When did it all change?

HF: By the end of the Fifties—even earlier—the real gusto of the New York School was over and there were hundreds of thousands of imitators who crept first across America and then Europe. The breakthrough artists were few and far between, those of the quality I respect.

TM: Were there breakthroughs and were there differences in the aesthetic that came on the scene by the Sixties?

HF: Definitely yes, but whether they were to my taste is a different matter altogether. My hope is to develop my aesthetic; not rest on a breakthrough.

TM: Have you ever been conscious of a revolutionary programme in the arts? Art history has certainly projected American post-war painting as being revolutionary, with you as part of the revolution. Is that a major part of being a modernist artist?

HF: I think it’s probably true throughout history. I believe that one tradition spawns another. I believe in tradition in life in general, not fashion. I don’t think that a new message falls from the sky and the light bulb goes on and suddenly there’s another whole new aesthetic. I think the best art comes from the best art. But you can’t totally dwell on it. You have to say, my art today needs this or needs that. You never really know exactly where you’re going. You hope you’re going to some new beautiful place. Hopefully, you’ll know it when you see it in front of you. A great example of a true revolutionary was Piero della Francesca.

TM: I wonder if he knew he was, though.

HF: He did what he had to do. He certainly changed the surface of painting, and brought sculptural illusion to both a flat and modelled surface that had a tremendous influence. He broke away from the background/foreground space of the Quattrocento painters. And that gesture filtered right down the line, eventually to Cézanne, Cubism, etc. Even Pollock was at the end of that line. I have not seen anything like that in recent days and long for it and will rejoice when I see it. With few exceptions there is little sense of continuity these days.

TM: Your own relationship to art history is an intricate one. You’ve made a good number of works that relate directly to Old and Modern Masters and that seem to be in dialogue with them. So you find art history something that is empowering. Is it something to work through or be overcome?

HF: I use the art of the past to learn from, to exploit, and as a springboard, but not to copy slavishly. Often copying a painting helps me understand how it was made. For example, I remember in the Fifties feeling that I didn’t really understand Manet but when I went to galleries and museums with my friends, most would imply Manet was sublime. But I just didn’t get it. So I selected one or two of his works and thought, in my own language, I want to copy this, and try and get lost; seeing and feeling what he’s about. And after several of those exercises, successful and unsuccessful, I did get Manet, and what he did for art: how his backgrounds melt into the foreground; the fact there is no horizon line or wall line; how he flattened the surface and yet didn’t flatten the surface. And I’m very grateful for that, because it makes looking at pictures more fun and opens up a lot of things. Cézanne was tremendously affected by Manet.

TM: So when we look at a painting you’ve done after Manet, Matisse, Titian or after Rembrandt, to name a few, what we are seeing is a physical exploration of how you see those paintings but with an added sense of empathy, of how they were made?

HF: In a way, yes. But take something like my “Portrait of a Lady in White” from 1979 after Titian’s “Woman in White”. I thought, essentially, Titian’s is a black and white picture, and given the same basic scale and mixing these colours, I am going to try and put the whites and the lights where they are in that picture, and the darks where they are. I tinted the canvas first and worked the white into and on top of it. When I am working from an Old Master, I usually work from postcards, or full page magazine reproductions tacked to the wall. Then I put them aside and feel my existing picture needs this and my picture needs that, and I would brush on, or slap on, whatever I needed, and very often I would add a colour such as the green or ochre strokes. For example, I hardly ever use the colour black as it comes out of a tube. I create my own black. It might have more crimson or green or blue or whatever. You get a richness in darks that you otherwise would not get.

TM: So you are not an overtly systematic artist? You don’t work in series or have a vision of how you’re going to proceed in the next five years?

HF: Well, I might say I am going to give myself an experiment. I did that often when I hadn’t worked for a while, and I might do that again soon. In the past, I might work on a canvas from the edges in, or from the centre out, or limit the palette to this, that or the other, or I’m going to connect shapes with lines, and a different kind of line. The whole business of how lines and divisions are created has always fascinated me in terms of drawing a picture.

TM: So when you are confronted by a blank canvas, is that a daunting moment? Is it a moment full of possibilities? Do you know what you’re going to do, or is it sometimes a question of getting yourself in a state of mind where you can confront that canvas?

HF: It varies. If there has been a continuous flow of pictures, I am neither afraid nor confronted nor daunted by the flat, empty space in front of me. If I think I have been in that rhythm for a while I am apt to feel, now what? Do I pick up where I left off? So much life has occurred since I was last in the flow. There are two tricks I’ve relied on, at those moments. One is to go back to my origins, Cubism and “Mountains and Sea” (from 1952), and play around with that, get my wrist used to working in my original flow. And the other is not to bear down and take it all too seriously, but to go into the studio and say I am going to doodle around here and make some marks and if I feel I have had enough of it after a half hour, get out, do not dwell on it and try and not worry. When I am too tired, it means I am pushing too hard. Then the result is rarely, if ever, any good.

TM: Is painting a risky business then? Because the impression you have just given me is that you’re quite prepared to make mistakes.

HF: I think it is risky but I have a pretty good eye for what works of mine, and a pretty good eye for what puzzles me. Very often the best moments have happened when the artist feels: what is this, what have I made? After I made “Mountains and Sea”, I looked at it and thought, this is a very odd picture, and I just made it and it’s still wet, and I don’t want to add anything to it. So, I thought, I am just going to let it sit there and dry. There were also a good many pictures that seemed to lead up to it, and of course many to follow. I remember a watercolour from 1951. While it was still wet, I scrunched it up into a ball and threw it in the fireplace. Clem [Greenberg] was there. He reached in and said, “Never do that.” He smoothed it flat, still damp. I’ll never forget it. You can see that work on paper now at MoMA. It just says “Mountains and Sea” to me, which I actually made about a year later.

TM: Are you still working through the implications of that which you achieved and surprised yourself with in “Mountains and Sea”?

HF: In a way, yes. I think I kept the same signature, and the same indescribable sensation in my painting that is not realistic per se but makes people associate, and in some way, feel many things. The elements are never merely circles, squares and stripes.

TM: So is the term “abstract” for you something that is often misleading because people take it too literally? Because so much of your painting invariably alludes to certain sensations; they might be visual, they might be emotional, they might be intellectual, but there are always references that can be perceived.

HF: Yes. A few of the pictures in this show at Bernard Jacobson’s gallery are some of the most abstract I have ever made and they have all been produced in the last decade. There is one that has a very purple mauve square, and a very pale blue wash at the edge, almost as a border, and coming through the dense square in the centre all kinds of coloured lights. There are other similar works. I have many of those kinds of ideas for pictures that I might start to embark on now. I never like to repeat what becomes a facile gesure. For example, I might be good at the fluid arabesque and the splash. Sometimes though, I like to tie up my wrist and think, “What would happen if you stay away from those gestures right now.” And of course something does happen then, and you feel that this is an important variation.

TM: Do you paint mainly from the wrist or the shoulder or the whole body? Have you ever used all those physical gestures?

HF: I think I have.

TM: Is painting physically cathartic?

HF: Somewhat. It certainly plays with one’s energies, both giving and depleting. I never counted on it as my physical exercise, certainly not currently.

TM: It is not therapy then?

HF: Maybe painting used to keep me in shape and now I have to stay in shape to do it. The whole business of painting enormous pictures is something that does not interest me any more and something that I was really doing with joy, and success, especially in the Seventies: pictures like “Hint from Bassano” (1973); “Moveable Blue” (1974); “Ocean Drive West” (1974); “Kingsway” (1975); “Sphinx” (1976); “Into the West” (1977), and all those paintings. I had a great run of enormous pictures. I think generally that huge scale paintings have had their moment.

TM: Are you more in control if you work on a small scale?

HF: Not necessarily. When I made a picture such as “Into the West” (1977), I nursed every square inch of it, staying in the studio till, oh I don’t know what time, and as it dried I continued to make many changes and went back into it, over and over again. That was a pretty big canvas (2.6 x 3.6metres).

TM: How do you make small scale works, that do not seem sketches for larger scale ones?

HF: Well, it is more intimate because there is less space between you and the surface. Recently, I have worked on paper and I have done lots of big things and small things which are certainly not sketches. It is a question of what feels right, what seems appropriate. I see so many enormous pictures today made by very agile, eager young artists and most of them not quality. You cannot expect more, alas. I think “big” really made sense to Rothko, Newman, Still, and all the others were doing it because painting felt like it had to be ambitious in scale then. They were taking painting off the easel, out of the salon frame. In the Forties and Fifties they brought everything so emphatically to the surface, proclaimed the experience of flatness. That flatness demanded space. Pollock’s pictures at the National Gallery and at the Met and a few at MoMA are marvellous and really felt, and pictures do not lie. The artist feels them and you feel them, too. The same applies to the magic Rothkos, Motherwells, some Stills. Hofman remained something else in his greatness.

TM: When you look back at the works you have created, can you remember your state of mind? Are they about specific feelings that you experienced?

HF: Big question. Sometimes in the past if I was on a trip and was affected by a certain scene or fork in the road, or sunset, I might make little notes saying things like “orange, green in the upper left”, and tack those notes in my studio. Weeks later, perhaps I half forgot what the scene was. But I also had the memory as a combination of colours to use. And at the same time I would often keep an on-going title list. It was pages in length. It might list “Hope Junction” or “Magic Moon”. Sometimes they were very abstract titles and sometimes not. Once I had an assistant who was my secretary, and he came to me one morning and said, “I had a dream that I was painting one of your pictures, and I remember that picture so vividly. You know I feel I could paint it now”. So I said, “What was it like?” And he described it and I wrote it down. He gave me the colours and the general feel of it, but you cannot really climb into somebody else’s dream—at least only to a limited shadow-like extent. Anyway, I made a painting and I called it “Borrowed Dream”. I don’t know if it was good or bad. It has had a lot of attention. But you can use anything, you know. In a picture like “Interior” (1957), clearly there are references to the interior of a room. There are chairs and there is a table, but they are doing a job on the canvas, they are not describing a room. I happened to use those shapes and that square thing on the wall that might have been a picture, or a plant. I just knew it needed a square there in that area of the picture.

TM: But a painting like “Mother Goose Melody” (1959), certainly according to John Elderfield [curator at MoMA], alludes to childhood. Do you go along with that?

HF: Largely. In other words, I started a picture, and simultaneously— and one is fortunate when these magic moments happen—I was caught between the making of an abstract picture and the emergence of certain images. Suddenly this goose shape seemed to appear, and I needed three black verticals, and the picture was balanced in a very imbalanced crazy way. I knew that these three vertical shapes were the three [Frankenthaler] sisters. At the same time it had nothing to do with my youth. I was in some sort of fairy tale and I was essentially just making a picture. If you look at “Impression: Sunrise”, the first Monet Impressionist picture, it is just that circle on the horizon, a little gem. It is clearly a landscape and a sunrise, and he was clearly involved in it, but it also had to do with the birth of an aesthetic for Monet, a way of making a painting.

TM: Monet is emphatically looking outwards in that painting is he not? He is looking at the scene, trying to render the effects of light and atmosphere among other things. Do you tend to be looking inward to your self when you are painting, even if it’s unconsciously?

HF: I am looking outward and inward.

TM: You mean that every mark we make is potentially loaded with our subconscious?

HF: Yes, I think so. Tony Caro’s last show of sculptures at Marlborough in New York clearly had subject matter, and so does his piece “The Last Judgement” shown in Venice. Whatever he calls it, it works. In fact, a whole new gesture appeared, often combining different materials. It is very much the way in which I feel myself working on occasion; making a message; giving a message, getting a message, dwelling on a message; but you are also totally free, and the work has to take over from there.

TM: So the painting takes over you, rather than you taking over the painting?

HF: It is a very romantic exchange, and often full of arguments.

TM: Has music ever been a more direct source for your painting, in a way that looking at a master has informed your painting?

HF: Not directly, but music is often essential background when I work. But, if for instance, I am listening to Mozart or Vivaldi or some great baroque piece, and I am lying there in the dark before I go to sleep, I can see it drawn. Then I begin to see how and why the harmony occurs, and you might get a whole, beautiful, patterned order, that is so pleasurable and so generous, and is endlessly good. You can hear it over and over again, and it is always giving you something. Joy, order, invention, pleasure, truth.

TM: Have you ever been able to use those visual pictures as an inspiration for your paintings? Are they there in your mind sometimes when you are trying to paint?

HF: Maybe someplace. I do not know. The reason I have named pictures Debussy or Scarlatti, is that I was listening to their work at the time. I played it and played it and it was always in the background. Titles are dangerous, in music or any art. I am often tempted to omit titles because they are such hooks and handles to the interior of the work. But numbering is an endless chore for me.

TM: You began as a writer as well as a painter. Have you ever made works that you think are very close to visual poetry, or is the relationship between painting and poetry an often overstated and over-romanticised one? I think sometimes when critics use the word “poetic” to describe a painting, it is laziness; they use it very nebulously.

HF: Yes, it is the way they use “lyrical”. I love good poetry, but I would not tack Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot on the wall, or any number of poets, in order to be inspired.

TM: But you did do a painting called “Burnt Norton” once.

HF: I had read a lot of Eliot but I used “Burnt Norton” because it seemed a good title for that particular picture.

TM: Do you chase the idea of the perfect picture? Is this an elusive quest? Are you in search of some kind of absolute that you perhaps know you will never reach, but which has driven the way you have worked?

HF: One does not make breakthrough pictures every day, but each picture is another experience, and hopefully a good picture works perfectly. Pictures can work perfectly; life cannot.

TM: What did you learn from the process of making sculpture when you went to Anthony Caro’s London studio to work in 1972?

HF: It was wonderful. I jumped into it. He was so helpful and said, “You can use anything you want”. There was still some of the material he had gotten from David Smith’s studio and I had the chance to make some terrific things. I would love to be able to do that again. I worked with Tony’s assistants and that was extraordinary. You see, if you are an artist and you have a big crew, as Tony does, you can say, I want to weld this to this, right here. But with the work I am involved in, it is me and my body alone in the studio. I might have a studio assistant who is cleaning out pails and mopping up floors, but he cannot paint my picture. If you are directing helpers in a sculptor’s studio, and there are enough of them, and you as the artist are there, you can do almost anything. It is another ball game. You can be on site and construct many sculptures at once.

TM: Does that mean that you would sometimes like to be slightly more detached from your own pictures when they’re being made?

HF: Very much so. When I did a fifty-five foot tapestry soon after making the steel sculptures in London, I made a maquette and then sent back samples of woof and weave. We had an international dialogue. I never saw the actual surface of what eventually was hung in Hong Kong. I was creating the tapestry, but others were helping. However, on another subject, I am one hundred percent certain that computer art cannot achieve what I am talking about, because it does not have the feeling of creating so directly; it lacks the human quotient.

TM: So the act of creation is not something in which you always want to be totally immersed. If you could find a way of producing your paintings that did not necessarily involve you so physically in their creation, that would not necessarily be a bad thing at all? It is not, therefore, all about process?

HF: Something to consider. Tough question for me.

TM: But you once said that the sculptures you made seemed to be an extension of your painting, whereas I wonder if you ever considered, having made the sculpture or worked more three-dimensionally, that in fact you had quite a strong sculptural sensibility in the way that you made paintings?

HF: I would agree with that idea, but basically I am a painter. I have loved throwing myself into all my sculptural projects. I made a bronze screen during the Eighties. I made the sculptured frame in wax and then worked on the flat bronze surface in acids and pigments. On the whole, I think the screen works marvelously but each panel was treated as a painting on bronze. There is an edition of twelve. It must weigh a ton. Working with Ken Tyler and the Tallix Foundry on the bronze screen was an adventure. I felt the same way working at Tony’s, and again making ceramic sculpture in Syracuse in 1975.

TM: Do you feel most yourself when you are painting?

HF: I get lost, whatever medium I am working in—painting, sculpture, works on paper, graphics.

TM: And do you go into a trance?

HF: No. It is just that for the time I am totally into creating a work. I am obsessed and the energy flows, the adrenalin flows, the ideas flow. I cannot work fast enough and that is great. As I said before, to push is hell. There is one exception: if I am getting back to work, I often have to force it and then stop, go another day, push, stop and eventually, hopefully, get into my old rhythm. I know when I started all these works on paper not too long ago, the first few felt slow and unresolved and then suddenly something clicked and I could not get them out fast enough and I wanted more and more paper. Every so often I woul tear one up and my studio assistant would tremble but that is the way it goes.

TM: Do you aspire to a notion of beauty? It is a very difficult term nowadays but I still think it is worth pursuing. Is it something that is always present in your mind, or is it too nebulous to mean anything?

HF: I have always thought it meant something but it certainly does not mean a movie star’s beautiful face. It means that a picture works and really gives and gets richer. It has this order, this je ne sais quoi, magic, and then it is beautiful. I think several years ago there was an attempt in certain artists’ circles to tear down the words “beauty” and “beautiful”, making that whole view obsolete—and to a certain extent there still is. Most people out there in the American art world are so anti-Greenberg, and what he respected. He used words such as beauty and “it works”. While I myself question a lot of the things that Clem said and did, he knew what the indescribable meant: that you cannot prove an aesthetic judgement.

TM: Did he have a good eye, or was it all in mind?

HF: He had a very good eye and I loved looking at pictures with him. We looked at pictures from the hill towns of Europe to SoHo. We would argue a lot and often change each other’s minds.

TM: You had a studio in Manhattan for over four decades but about ten years ago you left and now work here in Connecticut. What impact did leaving New York have on your work?

HF: I find life easier and more beautiful and more comfortable in the country. I am on my own here, or at least living away from an art scene, and therefore feel I am living so much more than when I am surrounded by concrete, commitments and calendars.

TM: So you would never call yourself an urban painter? There has never been a strong urban sensibility in your art?

HF: I have been a painter, wherever I am: city or country, good light or poor light.

TM: Has there been a rural one or a pastoral one?

HF: I would imagine that my pictures are more landscape-oriented than urban-oriented. But that could be manifest in a dimly lit loft.

TM: Light it seems to me is an extraordinary factor in a lot of your paintings, and not always talked about. Are you very conscious of a susceptibility to the changing light around here, or is a studio a more hermetic place?

HF: I think light creeps in. Everything has an effect, light, mood etc. I can remember trying to paint initially in my studio here which does not face sky and water, all windows are above, except for one that looks out on greenery. The landscape environment around the house is basically one of light and water, sky and shrubbery, rocks and distances. I have always responded to the wonders of the natural environment. When I was a child, I used to take my mother to the window of my room in our apartment on the thirteenth floor in Manhattan, and have her look at clouds because I was so mesmerised by what I could see out the window, all the spaces and changes of nature.

TM: Is Constable an understated favourite of yours?

HF: I do like Constable, yes.

TM: He’s a great cloud obsessive isn’t he?

HF: Yes, and so is Turner. Turner can be great. The great and heavenly painter to me is Courbet.

TM: Which Courbet? The Courbet of the landscape, or Courbet of “Origins of the World”?

HF: Well the landscapes pretty much, and Courbet’s crazy women that seem wedged in the frame, you know, where the scale is so odd, and the body looks truncated, yet it all works. It is just divine. In every way he had such audacity, such range.

TM: Are you interested in the erotic side of Courbet?

HF: No more or less than I am interested in the erotic side of anybody, of Picasso or whomever.

TM: What about the erotic side of your own art? Are you conscious of it, of the sensuality of yourself and of the act of painting?

HF: There are a number of my pictures that conjure up the erotic: “Scene with Nude” (1952), “After Rubens” (1961), “Valentine for Mr Wonderful” (book of etchings, 1995), “Tales of Genji V”, (woodcut, 1998).

TM: “Scene With a Nude”, it seems to me, is a deliciously erotic painting.

HF: Yes, and several others.

TM: Are they an externalising of eroticism or are they something that comes from within you? I do not want to be over-simplistic or reductivist about it, but, for example in “Scene With a Nude” (1952), is that form a woman’s body from the inside out or is it very much looking from the outside at, and rendering, a woman’s body?

HF: I think it comes from the outside. I was making a picture first and foremost and I knew very well what I was doing when I put in that little splash of red. Then I thought: well, leave it, the picture looks good. I certainly was not doing anything consciously autobiographical.

TM: Is paint itself sensual stuff to you, I mean in the way that an artist like Willem de Kooning clearly finds it to be so, or even Francis Bacon?

HF: Paint alone is not sensual to me the way it might have been when I was a child. Of course, I like paint and what it is about and how thick it is and how thin it is. But it has to do with my particular needs at a given moment and they vary enormously. Paint is what you make it...

o “Helen Frankenthaler”, 1-28 June, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 14a Clifford Street, London, W1X 1RF Tel: +44 (0)20 7495 8575; fax: +44 (0)20 7495 6210

All images from John Elderfield, Frankenthaler (Harry N. Abrams Inc., NY, 1989)

images © Helen Frankenthaler; photos © Harry N. Abrams Inc.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“Making a message; giving a message”'