Helen Frankenthaler at Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy, September 1954. Photo Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York

Frankenthaler in Venice

John Elderfield talks to Sarah Crompton about curating a Venice exhibition of stunning works by the innovative American artist, who refused to be pigeonholed as ‘a girl painter’

‘What’s wrong with beautiful?’ asks the esteemed curator John Elderfield. He is talking about the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler, a woman plagued in her own time by constant comparisons with the Abstract Expressionists, in whose shadow her delicate, glorious paintings emerged.

As she forged her career, from the 1950s until the 2000s, her works were constantly criticised for being too lovely. Her innovations — the soak-stain technique she developed that put thinned paint onto untreated canvas; her pioneering role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field; the way she managed to conjure landscape and figures within an abstract painting — were often overlooked in discussions of her femininity.

‘She had to put up with all this stuff about being a girl painter,’ Elderfield continues. ‘It led to her just refusing anything that dealt with her as a woman artist. When the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington was established, she would have nothing to do with it. She wanted to be thought of as an artist, not as a woman artist.’

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Open Wall, 1953. Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas. 53¾ x 131 in (136.5 x 332.7 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographs by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Open Wall, 1953. Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas. 53¾ x 131 in (136.5 x 332.7 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photographs by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Elderfield’s exhibition Pittura/Panorama, in the historic setting of the Museo di Palazzo Grimani, will reveal Frankenthaler in all her glory, displaying 14 paintings from 1952 to 1992. Organised by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in conjunction with Venetian Heritage, it is the first presentation of her work in Venice since 1966, when she was a star of the American pavilion alongside Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly and Jules Olitski.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Riverhead, 1963. Acrylic on canvas, 82¼ x 143 in (208.9 x 363.2 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Riverhead, 1963. Acrylic on canvas, 82¼ x 143 in (208.9 x 363.2 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

‘What they showed was very much flat colour work,’ says Elderfield. ‘In 1966, for all those artists, everything was there on the surface. It wasn’t like looking at Old Master paintings, where everything is graded and spaced with glazes and layers, but by the late 1970s, that is what Helen started doing. Although hers were clearly contemporary paintings, the methods they used relate to the past.’

She also moved from what Elderfield describes as easel paintings — even though, like Pollock, she worked with the canvas on the floor — to horizontal panoramas. ‘I thought, particularly in Venice, it would be great to show a development that begins with at American-style painting and ends with something that is more European in a way.’

‘Among the things I like about her work is that everything was identifiably hers, but it was continually changing’ — John Elderfield

Elderfield met Frankenthaler when he was a young curator at MoMA in New York (he went on to become chief curator of painting and sculpture and is now chief curator emeritus). The first show he curated was on Fauvism, and she left him a note at the information desk saying she loved it.

‘About a week later, I had a phone call saying: “Did you get my message? You didn’t call me.” And I explained that I was brought up in Yorkshire in England and I always felt that if someone paid you a compliment you didn’t start fishing for another one. She said: “Well, now you’re in New York.”’

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), For E.M., 1981. Acrylic on canvas. 71¼ x 115¼ in (181 x 292.7 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), For E.M., 1981. Acrylic on canvas. 71¼ x 115¼ in (181 x 292.7 cm). © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

That was the beginning of a friendship that strengthened when he worked with Frankenthaler in the 1980s on a monograph of her work. ‘I spent a long time in her studio, just looking at work going back to the 1950s,’ he remembers. ‘We had a really good relationship. She was determined, wanting to do what she wanted to do and that was it. On the other hand, she was extremely nice and sociable and generous and enjoyed meeting people. It was fun.’

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Maelstrom, 1992. Acrylic on canvas. 118.1 x 272.9 cm. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), Maelstrom, 1992. Acrylic on canvas. 118.1 x 272.9 cm. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian

Frankenthaler’s last decade was scarred with illness; by the time she died in 2011, her reputation had faded. But the creation of the foundation, and the fact that Gagosian is now her gallery, has enabled it to blossom again. Women artists today look to Frankenthaler for inspiration and celebrate those qualities she tended to disavow.

For Elderfield, the renewed interest is a joy. ‘Among the things I like about her work is that everything was identifiably hers, but it was continually changing. Sometimes the changes are very strong, but nonetheless you recognise a continuity of pictorial thinking being developed in different ways. There is so much excitement to be had from looking at these paintings. They are extraordinary works. Marvellous.’

Pittura/Panorama is on at Museo di Palazzo Grimani, 7 May–17 November