Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Hotel Cro-Magnon, 1958, oil on canvas, 172.72 x 205.74 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum.
‘It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language.’
This desire to somehow bodily inhabit a work, points to a quality the late Robert Hughes might have called ‘intelligent sensuousness’. Frankenthaler invests something of her being in her paintings; just as the colours in this piece blend into each other, the boundaries between the artist and her creation are blurred so that every beautiful wrist motion is an act of belonging, an act of dwelling.
The painting has a wonderful transitory quality about it – the boldness and the confidence of the lines give it a sense of movement stilled, as if it’s a particular moment never to be repeated frozen on the canvas. Is the land bleeding up towards the sky or the sky trickling down on to the land?
I’ve chosen this painting, at least in part, for its wonderful, chaotic violence. This is no insipid watercolour; there’s real feeling here (look at the deep, red brushstrokes), a passionate engagement which calls for a response.
The first time I saw a Frankenthaler painting, I wanted to touch it. I think she might have sympathized with this tactile reaction: ‘The landscapes were in my arms as I did it.’ LT
For more on the work of Helen Frankenthaler, take a look at Alison Rowley’s book Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting.