– Spring 2014

Occupy 21st Street! Helen Frankenthaler at Gagosian

Shepherd Steiner

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on unsized, unprimed canvas, 219.4 × 297.8cm. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc., on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. © 2014 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./ ARS, New York. Photograph courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Apocryphal or not, I like to believe that at one time in the not-so-distant past there was a moment when one could confront an artwork or an exhibition at face value — say, when Jackson Pollock was a fresh figure on the scene in 1946—47, or during Helen Frankenthaler’s lean years in the early 1950s, when her paintings were shown at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York but very few were sold. Today, amidst the culture of art fairs, venture philanthropy and rogue trustees, as well as ‘super deals’ between gallerists, artists and hedge-fund managers, it is a different story. Yet I would argue one must seek out, confront and occupy the fictions (or at least the remnants of the fictions) of face value even here. It is a matter of keeping critique alive, a possibility now whittled down to what we might call symptomatic criticism, or what Walter Benjamin, in describing the Arcades Project (1927—40), once characterised as ‘an image of history in the most insignificant fixations of existence, in its dregs, as it were’.1 Take, for example, the complicated narrative for face value one confronts in ‘Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959’,2 an exhibition held in the spring of 2013 at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, New York (the West 21st Street branch, to be exact), a gallery that constitutes the perfect illustration of how the intersection of the largest economic

  1. See P. de Man, Aesthetic Ideology (ed. Andrzej Warminski), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

  2. As a general sampling, see Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London and New York: Verso, 2000; and Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, New York: Zone Books, 2008.

  3. See Clement Greenberg, ‘Introduction to an Exhibition of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski’ (1963), The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957—69 (ed. John O’Brian), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988—95, pp.149—53.

  4. See Michael Fried, ‘Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella’ (1965), Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp.213—65.

  5. Elderfield, ‘The Pleasure of Not Knowing’, op. cit., pp.12—14.

  6. A.M. Wagner, ‘Pollock’s Nature, Frankenthaler’s Culture’, op. cit., p.191.

  7. W. Benjamin, letter to G. Scholem, 8 August 1935, op. cit.

  8. Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Statement’, in John Bauer (ed.), ‘New Talent in the US’, Art in America, vol.45, no.1, March 1957, p.29

  9. Kenneth Burke defines the ‘representative anecdote’ as a slice of reality that is both a ‘reflection of reality’ and a ‘deflection of reality’. K. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945, p.59.

  10. See A.M. Wagner, ‘Helen Frankenthaler: 1928—2011’, Artforum, vol.50, no.8, April 2012, p.51; and J. Elderfield, ‘The Pleasure of Not Knowing’, op. cit., p.33.

  11. Quoted in J. Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso, op. cit., p.8.

  12. See especially Robert Linsley’s reading of firstness in ‘First and Last’, Abstract Art in the Era of GlobalConceptualism [blog], 25 April 2012, available at http://newabstraction.net/2012/04/25/first-and-last/ 
(last accessed on 13 October 2013).

  13. K. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, op. cit., p.164.

  14. K. Burke, quoted in Michael Feehan, ‘A Note on the Writing of a Rhetoric of Motives’, K.B. Journal [online journal], vol.8, issue 1, Spring 2012, available at http://kbjournal.org/feehan_note_rhetoric_of_motives (last accessed on 13 October 2013).

  15. C. Greenberg, ‘After Abstract Expressionism’, The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 4, op. cit., p.131.

  16. For instance, a brief sampling of interviews with, the biographical literature on and texts by 
Frankenthaler, Greenberg, Pollock, Louis, Noland and David Smith would reveal exposure to and knowledge of Hermann Rorschach, Sigmund Freud, Ernst Kris, Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Harry
Stack Sullivan, Saul Newton and David Riesman. On Frankenthaler’s own interest, see Barbara Rose, ‘Oral history interview with Helen Frankenthaler’, August 1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, available at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-helen-frankenthaler-12171 (last accessed on 13 October 2013).

  17. J. Elderfield, ‘The Pleasure of Not Knowing’, op. cit., p.14. See also Michael Podro, Depiction, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

  18. This is summed up in the epigraph of K. Burke’s A Grammar of Motives (op. cit.) — ad bellum purificandum (‘towards the purification of war’) — and is contained within the chiasmic structure of his notion of the dramatic exchange.

  19. K. Burke, A Grammar of Motives, op. cit., p.243.

  20. Max Horkheimer, ‘Preface’, in T.W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick, Daniel J. Levinson and R. Nevitt 
Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality: Studies in Prejudice Series, New York: Harper and Brothers 
American Jewish Committee, 1950, p.x.

  21. T.W. Adorno, E. Frenkel-Brunswick, D. J. Levinson and R.N. Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality, 
op. cit., pp.2—3.

  22. Burke had directed the young Frankenthaler to William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity sometime 
in 1947 or 1948. See W. Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, New York: New Directions, 1947.

  23. See Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship (1994, trans. George Collins), London and New York: Verso, 1997, pp.26—48; and G.C. Spivak, ‘Collectivities’, Death of a Discipline, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, pp.25—70.

  24. B. Rose, Frankenthaler, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1970, p.29.