By The Sea
Helen Frankenthaler at PAAM, Provincetown
Provincetown is a picturesque place to vacation during the summertime, but it’s also a haven for outsiders. Artists and queer populations have long flocked to this town on the tip of Cape Cod for its laid back attitude and hospitality towards creative types. Some of the great painters of the twentieth-century spent time here. Hans Hofmann’s famous school even held its summer sessions in Provincetown until the late 1950s. One former Hofmann student was Helen Frankenthaler. She spent most of her summers of the ‘50s and ‘60s in P-town, and like many of her peers, the time spent on the coast inspired many works of art. In the exhibition Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, twenty five paintings show the progression of Frankenthaler’s oeuvre through her summers on the Cape.
Curated by Lise Motherwell, the artist’s stepdaughter, and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s Executive Director Elizabeth Smith, this show illustrates the personal and artistic relationship the that Frankenthaler had with Provincetown. Originally venturing out to Cape Cod in 1950 to take classes with Hans Hofmann, she worked there every summer between 1958 and 1969 at various studios and artist colonies. This time mostly matches the timespan of her marriage to the artist Robert Motherwell, who also used Provincetown as an artistic haven.
Although the exhibition follows the biographic history of the artist through the photographs, writings, and other ephemera from her time in Provincetown, this is a show that tracks the evolution of Frankenthaler’s artistic practice. With works from 1950 to the late ‘60s, you see Frankenthaler fully blossom into her mature period of elegant canvases soaked and dyed with paint. Works like Beach from 1950 certainly succeed as Ab-Ex paintings, but lack personality or verve. However, by the mid to late ‘50s, paintings like Sea Picture with Black move away from the influence of artists like Hofmann and Jackson Pollock and towards something new. By the 1960s, the soft fields of color were finally rid of these influences. Gesture and hefty symbolism were rejected through the staining of canvas with flat, solid planes of color which held none of the violent brushwork or angst of artists like Franz Kline or Pollock.
This maturation and evolution of Frankenthaler’s paintings is still a compelling story, but using the close relationship that the artist had to Provincetown is a refreshing take on one of the most successful American painters of her generation. Rather than defining her practice through the confines of the New York School or through the men in her life (which is still too common), Motherwell and Smith give insight into an artist who found solace, transformation, and inspiration in her time by the sea.