Helen Frankenthaler's Mountain Storm (1955) was produced during a fertile decade for the artist and a few years after her quintessential painting Mountains and Sea (1952). She had previously been under the thrall of Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse, but when she discovered Pollock, her work took an innovative turn. Building on the lessons learned from Pollock, she began creating a significant and individual body of work that continues to the present date.
Although she admired Pollock's classic drips paintings from 1948-1950, it was not until 1951, with his black enamel paintings such as Brown and Silver I, that Frankenthaler was ready to utilize their revolutionary qualities in a meaningful way. "The real turning point in Frankenthaler's development, in fact, occurred in response to Pollock's exhibition of black-and-white paintings at Betty Parsons Gallery in November 1951" (S. Cross, After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, New York, p. 19). Frankenthaler was able to develop Pollock's use of negative space, which in these paintings were areas of unprimed canvas, as well as his allover composition and his staining and brushwork combinations.
Despite Pollock's overarching shadow, the works are very much Frankenthaler's. They possess an expressive power and assured touch that is particularly impressive given the artist's tender age. What is sometimes overlooked is that Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea at the age of 23 and Mountain Storm at age 26.
Mountain Storm's combination of soaked pigments and thick impasto had many precedents. At this time, James Brooks, was creating his own powerful synthesis of Pollock's ideas, utilizing the stained canvas to create an underlying structure over which he would paint seductive passages of curvilinear forms. Frankenthaler knew Brooks since 1948 and his example was not only compelling in its own right, but he showed how an artist could be influenced by Pollocks' working methods and still create a highly individual and celebrated body of work.
Mountain Storm is an explosive painting. The liquidity of the stained pigment flows over the canvas like water breaking over rocks, with splashes of white kicking up like foam. The dark central rock/mountain shape is surrounded by, but holds its own against, the encroaching blues, yellow, green and reds. Frankenthaler's mastery of thinned oil paint is evident, as she masterfully manipulates its transparency and opacity as needed. In her technique, she may have been influenced by Cézanne as well as John Marin, two artists who used thinned oil paint in a watercolor-like manner.
Explaining her early penchant for watercolor's qualities, Frankenthaler has said, "I needed something more liquid, watery, thinner. All my life, I have been drawn to water and translucency. I love the water; I love to swim, to watch changing seascapes. One of my favorite childhood games was to fill a sink with water and put nail polish into it to see what happened when the colors burst upon the surface, merging into each other as floating, changing shapes" (H. Frankenthaler, as quoted in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, p. 39).
Although incredibly complex, Mountain Storm is held together by the unified color scheme and diagonal composition that moves energetically towards the upper left. Frankenthaler has an innate ability to incorporate a staggering number of forms and gestures that read as sensuous individual marks, yet always work in unison to create a unified design. In Mountain Storm, she avoids the pitfalls of some paintings from this period which are overworked and at times muddled.
Although hindsight has shown Mountains and Sea to be a radical work, at the time it was not well-received. A New York Times critic called it a "headlong abandonment of really thought-out form to a point where even spontaneity cannot save the day...on the whole, this is an imprudent exhibition" (S. Preston, as quoted in J. Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, p.80).
In fact, it was paintings like Mountain Storm that critically "broke the ice" for Frankenthaler. "It was at this moment that Frankenthaler's art began to receive increased attention and acclaim. The more expressionistic pictures from earlier in 1955 were the first to attract it. They were represented in two influential exhibitions: Thomas B. Hess's U.S. Painting: Some Recent Directions, held at the Stable Gallery in November-December 1955, and Kyle Morris's Vanguard 1955: A Painter's Selection of New American Paintings, which followed Hess's exhibiton at the Stable Galllery, having first been seen at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis" (J. Elderfield, p. 98)
Mountain Storm was included in an important solo show at Tibor de Nagy in 1956. The reception towards these paintings were crucial to the artist's acceptance and ultimate success. Art News reviewed the exhibition, stating that her strength lie in the "sensuous empire over emergent forms that seem to correspond closely to kinesthetic responses...[her canvases are] drenched with her fervor for painterliness, and none of the younger artists has a more immediate feeling for paint itself to make this fervor authentic" (P. Tyler, as quoted in J. Elderfield, p. 98).
Like her contemporary Joan Mitchell and her predecessor Clyfford Still, Frankenthaler has always been associated with landscape. The artists share an ability to evoke natural forms and forces, without lapsing into straightforward representation or facile beauty. At their core, they are abstract artists who use landscape as their touchstone, much like de Kooning's work is perpetually inspired by the female form. "By "stopping short" of beauty, Frankenthaler allows the sublime--that delirious thicket of perception surrounding the beautiful--to determine the visual character of her painting" (P. Frank, Frankenthaler: Paintings and Works on Paper, Los Angeles, 1997, p. 7).
Jackson Pollock, Brown and Silver I, 1951 c 2003 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frankenthaler in her West End Avenue studio, New York, 1956 c Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos Inc., New York