Reflection at Red Pond

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in Digest, March 2012

Reflections in Ruins" Oil 40"x50" painting of a demolition site in Clifton with St. George Church in background

Helen Frankenthaler  1928-2011

A phone call from a long time friend of mine alerted me to the passing of this reknowned woman whose approach to painting contributed to and influenced the gestural abstract movement of the 50′ s and 60’s.

“I never usually read the obits in the New York Times” Marilyn began,” but I did last weekend, and guess who died?”  Marilyn ‘(48) had attended Bennington back in the day and had a special trio friendship with Sonia Rudikoffe and a younger Helen Frankenthaler. The years were heady with excitement and the talent at Bennington in the arts are notables today. Instructors Erich Fromm, Kenneth Burke, Theodore Roethke, and Paul Feeley, painter, set a fresh pace that produced new and insightful talent in the world, including Martha Graham and Helen Frankenthaler.

Marilyn finished her senior studies and moved on to start her master’s degree at the University of Chicago. She related to me that back at Bennington, her senior thesis show was organized by her friend Helen.

Hitting the keyboard to browse the flurry of death-notice articles, I bridled at the “feminist significance”  touted in critical reviews of her painting oeuvre– the paint flow/staining process being a subliminal menstrual flow release of the female psyche. Consider the parallel of this critical xxxx to the “labial forms” perceptions put forth by critics of Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstracts and florals. In other instances, her shapemaking is decried for suggesting semi-abstract land or mountain scape, a travesty of trivialization of contemporary painting matters. I contend that these are examples of the inability of some to credit originality with its own genius, and not as examples of expressive incapability based on sexuality and gender inferiorities.

Revisiting the energy of the Bennington atmosphere where Helen incubated in her youth, one cannot fail to note the drive and originality focused at that time, not only in the arts but also in dance and music. Of particular note is the major direction in dance taken by Martha Graham who re-defined the gesture in expressive contemporary dance style.

I visited the Mayerson Galleries at CAM where a work entitled “Red Pond”  exemplifies the stain approach that is uniquely identified with Frankenthaler.

Manipulating paint thinned with turpentine on raw canvas, Frankenthaler unleashed new formal elements with a variety of expressive interpretations. Movement in shapes, punctuated with whiplash lines and spatters, interact imaginatively in a contemporary landscape context. The artist’s investigation that resulted in this fluid fusion of paint, gesture and raw canvas is underlined in her statement, quote: ‘The landscapes were in my arms as I did it….I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something–I didn’t know what until it was manifest.”

Critics who decry her shapemaking as being vacuous are missing a powerful element: the artist’s influence in the gesture and her pleasure in the paint. I felt that her shapes though informal were in some semblance of chosen relationship fused on the raw canvas surface. Nor does her technique rely on repetitive crutches such as excessive spattering Pollock-style. Elements are clean and unique in their roles.

I noted also the particular color palette of “Red Pond” as well as other works as being committed to conscientiously selected shades aligned with shape for compositional impact.

I personally enjoyed her invitation to float through the forms untethered by narrative necessity and simply share her joy in the paint.

The sophisticated viewer can enjoy the work as an open-ended conversation today as refreshing as ever in its ease of execution. In contemplating these aspects of her color field oeuvre, I was impressed with both her greater gestural control/freedom and color-based beauty.

The discernible presence of the artist in the process is one of the rewards garnered by viewing the “Red Pond” painting. Her pleasurable relationship with the nature of paint is evident in the disarmingly fluid ease with which this work was executed. Her eyeball to eyeball directness is unflinching.

“For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue,” she was quoted as saying in John Gruen’s book “The Party’s Over Now” (1972).

“I don’t resent being a female painter.  I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

–Marlene Steele

Marlene Steele, artist and calligrapher, lives, paints and teaches in

Cincinnati, Ohio.

Comments are closed.