Around certain paintings there accumulates a historical aura that makes them even more of a legend than the artists who create them. One such picture is Mountains and Sea , which Helen Frankenthaler painted in October 1952, following a summer visit to Nova Scotia. The artist, who had had her first solo exhibition at the recently opened Tibor de Nagy Gallery in November 1951, was not quite 24 years old when she painted it. Mountains and Sea marked a turning point in Ms. Frankenthaler’s work, and was also to spark a new development in American abstract painting: the emergence of so-called Color-field abstraction.
For some years now, Mountains and Sea has been on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. That, I suppose, is an appropriate venue for the picture, since its principal influence was exerted on two Washington painters who were little-known at the time-Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Their first glimpse of Mountains and Sea came in the spring of 1953 on a visit to Ms. Frankenthaler’s New York studio. Now, nearly half a century later, the picture has returned to New York, where it is currently on view in the exhibition called After “Mountains and Sea”: Frankenthaler 1956-1959 , which Julia Brown has organized at the uptown Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
If the dates in the title of this exhibition seem a little out of sync with the 1952 date of Mountains and Sea itself, it is because it took Ms. Frankenthaler a few years to catch up with the implications of her own innovations in that painting. To understand this deferred reaction to her own innovations, it helps to be reminded of what was occurring in the art if the New York School in that period. Upon the so-called “second generation” of the New York School, the principal influence was then Willem de Kooning. What was sometimes called the Tenth Street style-an Abstract Expressionist amalgam of de Kooning and Franz Kline, who was himself heavily influenced by de Kooning- favored thick pigment, gestural form and densely packed surfaces. Meanwhile, de Kooning himself had temporarily abandoned abstraction to produce his “Women” series. Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956, had in his last years abandoned his signature style of all-over “drip” abstraction, and also seemed to be looking for a way back to something figurative. Robert Motherwell, to whom Ms. Frankenthaler was married in 1958, seemed at times the only member of the New York School’s first generation to remain faithful to the movement’s improvisational abstract esthetic.
What made Mountains and Sea such a sensational picture at the time-and what has made it something of a classic ever since-was its confident rejection of the Tenth Street manner in favor of a watercolor-like transparency that brought something new to big-scale abstract painting. Pollock’s influence is often-and correctly-cited in discussions of Mountains and Sea and the paintings of the later 1950’s, but as Susan Cross writes in the catalogue accompanying the current Guggenheim exhibition, “It was not the drama of Pollock’s drips and flung paint that attracted Frankenthaler but his rejection of the conventional brush and easel in order to disrupt conventional composition.” In Mountains and Sea , paint was thinned to the consistency of a wash, which was poured directly onto the canvas, while a delicate tracery of drawing provided a kind of armature on which to build an improvised structure of color.
This was distinctly not the fashion in avant-garde circles in New York in 1952, the year in which Harold Rosenberg published his ill-conceived but highly influential essay “The American Action Painters.” While the artist had retained certain features of Abstract Expressionism in painting Mountains and Sea -the improvisatory gesture accompanied by a good deal of drip and splatter-the whole effect was different. As I wrote about this development some years ago: “It was as if Abstract Expressionism had been put on a diet.” The visual weight of abstract painting had been radically transformed. It was now lighter, slimmer, and more quickly legible. Color achieved a greater degree of clarity, immediacy and transparency as it came to dominate the entire experience of the painting itself.
Whatever the reasons may have been for Ms. Frankenthaler’s delayed response to her own innovations, the paintings she produced between 1956 and 1959 proved to be some of her best-and certainly some of the best abstract paintings of their period. Of the 14 paintings from those years in the current exhibition, only one- Acres (1959)-reverts to a heavier, more conventional Abstract Expressionist manner. In the other pictures, however, there is an even greater mastery of color than in Mountains and Sea , and the kind of underdrawing that provided that painting with its armature has been eliminated as the artist submits the drawing function to the demands of a pictorial structure based on color.
What makes these paintings so remarkable at this distance in time is that there is so little repetition from picture to picture. Each of these paintings is a distinct and separate conception. Many of them have, like Mountains and Sea , the look of abstractions based on landscape or seascape. Others carry suggestions of figures or interiors, and indeed there are paintings here that are called Interior (1957) and Nude (1958). But this is only to say that, like virtually all painting, Ms. Frankenthaler’s pictures have a lot to do with cherished visual memories, private associations, and ideas carried in the mind from other works of art. Yet whatever their points of departure may be, it is as abstract paintings that they make their claim on our attention and endure as works of art. There was nothing quite like them when Ms. Frankenthaler painted them in the 1950’s, and there is nothing quite like them, either, in the pictures she has produced since the 1950’s. They define a special moment in the history of the New York School.
After “Mountains and Sea”: Frankenthaler, 1956-1959 remains on view at the Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 88th Street, through May 3.