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Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011): 'the bridge between Pollock and what is possible'

Helen Frankenthaler Mountains and Sea (1952), National Gallery of Art

In honor of Helen Frankenthaler, the great artist who died today at age 83, we offer these essays on her life's work and the painting that first made her famous, Mountains and Sea (1952).

James Panero on "Frankenthaler at 80" (2009):

Living masters have it rough, and Helen Frankenthaler has been living as a master for over half a century. In 1952, at the age of only twenty-three, she created Mountains and Sea, an iconic painting that forever secured her place in the history of art. It was a work that at once defined Frankenthaler’s style and changed the visual texture of abstract painting. Mountains and Sea built on the achievements of Jackson Pollock with its poured paint and rolled-out canvas—but it also outdid Pollock. With its thinned pigments soaked directly into linen, it displayed a new artistic temperament, subsuming the artistic ego into forms of color that absorbed the Abstract Expressionist gesture into an all-over stain.

A Recollection by the late dealer Andre Emmerich (2004):

Her work has been celebrated with more museum exhibitions than any other American artist represented by my gallery, more books and articles, and an avalanche of honorary doctorates. With it all, Helen has also managed to have more fun than most other artists do. A great party-giver, she helped me celebrate innumerable birthdays in her studio. There was always music to match, mostly Sinatra, to which she danced for hours with great style and enthusiasm.

Karen Wilkin on Frankenthaler at the Guggenheim (1998):

Mountains and Sea, with its luminous hues, diaphanous shapes, and detached fragments of line, has become a kind of icon, regarded as the Urtext of stain painting because of the way Frankenthaler disembodied color by physically merging thinned-out pigment with the very fabric of the canvas. At once landscapelike and wholly about the way paint responds to the gestures of a particular individual, at once flat and spatially suggestive, Mountains and Sea issued a challenge to the wet-into-wet, dragged paint-handling and loaded surfaces that were the hallmarks of ambitious abstraction at the start of the 1950s. Mountains and Sea was startling when it was first painted and, as anyone can attest who visited the picture in the past few years at the National Gallery, Washington (where it has been on long-term loan from the artist), it continues to look astonishingly fresh, bold, and inventive.

Karen Wilkin on Frankenthaler and her critics (1989)

I suspect that the persistence of these ideas owes more to current cynicism about how today’s art world functions than to real information. What is unquestionable is that the early Fifties were a heady time to be a young, pretty woman striving to make art in New York, especially if she had the benefit of an informed outsider, arguably the most perceptive critic of the period, as a guide. The city’s art community was a smaller, more cohesive place in those days, not yet split into Pollock vs. de Kooning vs. Rothko factions. (A position on the Stalinist purges could still make people cross the street in order to avoid one another, but that’s another matter.) Frankenthaler looked at everything—hard— and drew her own conclusions. The more aware among Frankenthaler’s commentators point out that she quickly realized, as she once put it, that “you could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock.” This usually leads to the most celebrated story in the Frankenthaler corpus, the one about her making Mountains and Sea, soaking its transparent, intense colors into raw canvas, and working abstractly, although with the memory of a recent trip to Nova Scotia, as she said, “in my arms.” Aged twenty-three. It’s the picture Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, young visitors from Washington, saw when Greenberg let them into Frankenthaler’s studio, in her absence, one weekend in 1953, the one that provoked Louis’s frequently quoted description of Frankenthaler as “the bridge between Pollock and what is possible.”

Best of 2011: "The Year of the Munk"

Munk recording "The James Kalm Report" at the opening of Joe Zucker's latest show

James writes:

"Do It Yourself" just did it.

Loren Munk, the apostle of DIY, whom I have written about in several columns this past year, gets his own Christmas Day profile in The New York Times in a piece by Jed Lipinski:

Several nights a week, he rides his mountain bike to art shows across the city from the 3,800-square-foot loft he shares with his wife in Red Hook, Brooklyn. His videos — recognizable for their unseen narrator’s labored breathing, jerky camera work and informed but uncritical commentary — run about 10 minutes and are shot with a tiny Canon Elph digital camera.

“There’s the great Chuck Close,” he said while filming a recent visit to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise gallery in Chelsea, before comparing the exhibiting artist’s technique to that of the post-painterly abstractionists.

“But he doesn’t just go to Chelsea,” said James Panero, an editor at The New Criterion, a conservative culture journal, who has written about Mr. Munk. “He goes to the most out-of-the-way places and treats them with the same level of importance. I think his videos will one day be in the Archives of American Art.”

Last February I predicted that 2011 would be "The Year of the Munk"--the time when Munk would rise to prominence for his work in the alternative art scene.

The year began with Munk's exhibition at Minus Space in Gowanus, reviewed here. The show featured paintings that chart Munk's idiosyncratic interpretations of art history.

Munk's understanding of history relates to the multidisiplinary approach of his artistic practice, which manages to combine painting, videography, writing, and (yes) biking. When I visited him in his Red Hook studio last January, he showed me a bumper sticker he had printed up (a few of them were used to hold his bike together). It said, "we are our own art history."

The statement goes to the heart of Munk's philosophy: that art-world outsiders, the vast "dark matter" of under-recognized artists like himself, need to write themselves into their own art history.

This principle energizes Munk's paintings, his criticism, his social commentary, and his new media project known as the James Kalm Report and James Kalm Rough Cuts--DIY videos of out-of-the-way galleries and artist studios to which he travels by bike. There are now nearly a thousand of his videos available for free online.

In September a solo exhibition of Munk's work, called "Location, Location, Location," went on view at Lesley Heller gallery. For Munk's first showing in a Manhattan venue in a decade, "Location" led me to consider the role of urban density in artistic innovation. Roberta Smith declared: "Mr. Munk gives dizzying visual expression to some of what lures the art-driven to the city: the sense of possibility in the air and of history beneath our feet." I agree.

Yet not everyone has praised Munk's paintings or his new-media work created under the James Kalm pseudonym. Charlie Finch and the Web 1.0 writers at have gone after Munk (and myself). In one article, Finch declared Munk to be a "likeable, dimwitted observer who has recently emerged as the darling of the most reactionary element in art criticism, James Panero." Such denials only confirm the success of Munk's project. 

This success means greater recognition for the alternative art scene that he has championed for decades. In 2011, Munk wrote the dark matter back into art history.

Alistair Horne: Commune Plus One "excellent and provocative piece"

James writes:

In a thread of smart comments, Sir Alistair Horne writes in with praise for Commune Plus One (comment #30):

I was exhilarated to read the excellent and provocative piece by James Panero on Occupied Wall Street and the Paris Commune. And of course also delighted to be singled out for mention.

This note has particular meaning. I was inspired to write "Commune Plus One" after reading Sir Alistair's book, which in addition to presenting a penetrating history of those 72 days in Paris in 1871, also draws a connection to the student uprisings of 1968.

Sir Alistair tells me that his book The Fall of Paris, The Siege, and the Commune 1870-1871 is still in print from Penguin after forty years.