Mastering the abstract: Paintings on paper by Helen Frankenthaler at the MoCA

Abstract Expressionism makes it difficult to recognize form by erasing such labels that help us distinguish objects and figures. The 1950s peaked with a new step in artistic development with artists like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Jackson Pollock and…Helen Frankenthaler. Gone are works rendered with direct metaphors and literal translations. Welcome to the desert of the “post-modern:” label it and it will lose intrinsic value.

The paintings on paper of Helen Frankenthaler, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, are masterful because she is not afraid to appropriate. She explains in an artist statement: “I refer to a late Rembrandt or a sublime landscape painting of Turner and I wonder where I am going to take it. I want to use it in terms of myself and what I have made before.” Picasso once said: “To be talented is to borrow, and to be genius is to steal.” Frankenthaler has genius guts.

Her painting becomes a space that defies logic and rationale. So what is good and what is bad? What may judge emotional response? How can you compare colors? Many have turned to subjective relativism to define important art and failed. In galleries one might hear, “Well, I like it because it moves me and I don’t know why.” This is a fair assessment, but the question still remains…why?

In contemporary art discourse, a lot of work is discredited because it is someone else’s idea that’s recycled and refined. Artwork falters when it tries to be something that it is not. Appropriation is daunting to artists who attempt to conceal the line between their accomplishment and the foundations laid by countless others before them. Frankenthaler is successful with her work because she uses paintings from earlier artists for a jumping-off point and then intentionally applies her hand to the paper without becoming sneaky about what she is appropriating.

After being inspired in 1950 by Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Frank O’Hara and others, Frankenthaler’s work found a place among the leading artistic visionaries of the time. Her work in the late fifties hinted at the playful humor of Pop Art by incorporating Bazooka Joe comics and joker cards onto the paper. Forms float on blank backgrounds working the negative space.

In the sixties, she began to experiment more with various colors and shapes that hint at landscapes. By the nineties, her work evolved to more complex colors that, while remaining simple and powerful, began to take on more sophistication and to bleed all the way off the page. Her concepts emerged in later works as less ambiguous and the compositions take hold of the eye and don’t let go.

Abstract Expressionism looks easy to render when it is done well. Frankenthaler’s paintings are simple and masterful. Her work is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or Michael Jackson dance. It has flow and this exhibit takes us right up to where painting and drawing is going today. From here on it can never be the same.

Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper (1949-2002) is showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami. Call 305-893-6211 for more info.

Alex Saleeby can be reached at