What Helen Frankenthaler Learned About Painting From Visiting the Old Masters at the Prado

Helen sat on the steps of the Prado, smoking a cigarette in the blazing heat of midafternoon while the museum was closed for siesta. By then she had been in the darkened galleries for five hours, having arrived when the doors opened at nine, and she would go back in when the doors reopened and stay until closing time at 7:30. This was Helen’s routine every day during her time in Madrid, part of a two-month tour she took alone that summer through Spain and southern France.

That spring, Helen had been thinking of escaping Manhattan for part of the summer. The city was too grimy and noisy. Her analyst was taking the month of July off. Her sister Gloria was in Europe with her husband, ticking off boxes on the list of popular sites—“everything was wonderful, beautiful, divine, delicious”—and the banality of her sibling’s tourism was an inspiration: Helen knew she would never waste a European trip like that. Meanwhile her mother’s condition was worsening—“She is really a very sick, helpless, hopeless woman in so many ways, and the whole situation is depressing and difficult to manage”—and the relationship with Greenberg was never easy. On July 8, she was one of a thousand passengers on board the S.S. Constitution, an air-conditioned luxury ocean liner more than two football fields long, departing New York for the six-day voyage to Gibraltar.


Her visits to the Prado were a pilgrimage to stand before actual works, to bask in their aura. She did not care for a “museum without walls,” a phrase coined by French writer André Malraux in his book The Voices of Silence, published later in 1953, which extolled the fact that “an art student can examine color reproductions of most of the world’s great paintings” without ever leaving home. Helen was no longer an art student. Her Bennington days critiquing postcards on bulletin boards were over. She was a real painter now, with far more blood and toil and ego invested in the pursuit. She would look at the Old Masters to double down on her own art, to draw direct inspiration from the greatest artists who ever lived, to fashion an imaginary alliance with these men from the past who would inspire—by some internal standard of her own—the measure and seriousness of her art.


It all required a deep breath, taking in paintings of this kind, none more so than those of Peter Paul Rubens, an artist Helen loved whose work anticipates her own protean creative energy. Master of bombast and vulgarity, Rubens was probably the wettest painter who ever lived, the artist who most reveled in oil paint’s shimmer and viscosity, the one who put a person in mind not of a palette but of a bubbling cauldron as the source into which he dipped his brush. In picture after picture he set about his subjects—martyrs, mythologies, coronations—with a zeal that portrayed skin, water, sky, robes, fishes’ gills, decapitated heads, marble statues of maenads squirting fountain water from their breasts, muscles flexing on broad backs, the foliage of trees, anything at all, as if these lustrous facsimiles were nothing more than the products of a regular day at work, just another morning in the studio. Helen thought Rubens was “the greatest painter of all.”

Two years before her trip to Spain, she explained to [critic Sonya] Rudikoff the charge she got from looking at such paintings. The word was notably anti-intellectual; the more bookish Rudikoff did not like it. “Do you really get a ‘charge’ out of a painting?” she wrote back. Helen’s response was, “Of course I do! I believe that’s the only way to really look at a painting.” Sure, works of art offered more: “I do think that the first second of seeing a great painting is only a charge; and then you can look at the whys of it; its history or tradition, technique, etc.” But for Helen that first moment was paramount; a picture succeeded or failed exactly then, not by some academic scrutiny that came afterward. She was adamant that “no painting  is good ‘intellectually.’” And she credited one person with helping her make that realization. Paul Feeley had taught her how to paint, Meyer Schapiro had taught her what paintings mean, but [Clement] Greenberg had “really helped me to see or feel paintings; to develop a finer eye and detect the truth and magic in paintings.” She had gone with him to Philadelphia in late March 1952 to see a touring show of Old Master paintings from Vienna and had come away with a “thrilling feeling.” Now, at the Prado, without Clem, Helen was finding this magic for herself, and she was thinking that she, too, must make knock-out paintings—works that would stun the viewer with an unforgettable first impression, a sensation that endured, a “charge.”

At stake was the greatest thing a painter could do—convey the sense of being alive at a certain time, just as the Old Masters had done in their eras. In New York Helen looked around and felt that few painters were doing that. “I feel that contemporary painting simply isn’t great painting,” she lamented in 1951. The art crowding the walls of modern art galleries “isn’t good enough for us, now.” It missed the feeling of life that Helen found at Ed Winston’s Tropical Bar and other such places: the texture of experience, the life on the street, the elusive and intoxicating sensations that Ralph Waldo Emerson back in the 19th century had extolled as the greatest subject for American poets and painters: “the meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body.” The Old Masters had found these sensations in their respective eras, portraying biblical and mythological events with a lustrous presentism: a peasant couple in their coarse rags welcoming disguised Jupiter and Mercury to their hut; callous soldiers in their leather jerkins and silvery black armor, rolling dice and swilling ale, one of them fitting Jesus with his crown of thorns. As she thought of painting in her own time in comparison, Helen went into a “real depression.” She had gone first to a contemporary art show at the Kootz Gallery in New York, then to a masterpieces show at a Manhattan Old Master gallery, then back to Kootz, where the new paintings that had looked fresh and exciting before now looked meager, unimportant, trivial. She made an analogy: “Shakespeare is greater than most (all) things going on now poetry-wise, but this is not his era.”

Who would be the Shakespeare of the 1950s? Who would be the Rubens? Pollock was on their level. So was Arshile Gorky, the morose Armenian hedonist whose surrealist-inspired paintings of lush Venus flytrap pleasure gardens, aglow in spike edges and orifices, had grown in fame since his suicide in 1948 at the age of 44. But Helen felt that they were “the only ones of a particular school that give me a real charge that might compare— somewhat—to the excitement I get from seeing a really great Old Master.”

From Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York by Alexander Nemerov. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House, LLC. ©2021 Alexander Nemerov.

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Don’t Miss These 10 Museum Shows Opening in Europe in 2021, From a Hito Steyerl Retrospective to a Star Turn for Helen Frankenthaler

After 2020’s crush of postponements and cancellations, we are hopeful that 2021 will be different.

While a lot still remains to be confirmed, we have plucked out the most highly anticipated exhibitions to see in Europe in 2021.


Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
May 27–November 28

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly (2000). One-hundred-two color woodcut. ©2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / DACS / Tyler Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY

Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly (2000). One-hundred-two color woodcut. ©2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / DACS / Tyler Graphic Ltd., Mount Kisco, NY.

This major print retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler includes 30 works on loan from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, spanning from her first-ever woodcut, in 1973, to her final work, published in 2009. The show will examine the artist’s innovative approach to printmaking, defying the woodcut medium’s supposed limitations to create new dimensions of beauty.


Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Green Coconuts and Other Inadmissible Evidence
Vienna Secession, Vienna
Through February 7

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, <i>Once Removed</i> (2019). Exhibition view Secession 2020, Photo: Iris Ranzinger.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Once Removed (2019). Exhibition view Secession 2020, Photo: Iris Ranzinger.

This exhibition of the Turner Prize-winning artist’s work investigates sound, speech, memory, and their role in the quest for truth. A key tenet of the artist’s practice is his analysis of acoustic clues and earwitness testimony, and the exhibition will include four works from two series that investigate this, as well as other forms of witnessing. Included will be Abu Hamdan’s audiovisual inquiry into the Syrian torture prison Saydnaya, After SFX (2018), as well as a new series of prints titled For the Otherwise Unaccounted, which is inspired by birthmarks.


Untitled: Art on the Conditions of Our Time
Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
February 6–April 5

Larry Achiampong & David Blandy, <i>Finding Fanon Part One,</i>(2015), courtesy of Copperfield Gallery & Seventeen Gallery, London. Image: Claire Barrett.

Larry Achiampong & David Blandy, Finding Fanon Part One,(2015), courtesy of Copperfield Gallery & Seventeen Gallery, London. Image: Claire Barrett.

This group show will bring together 10 British artists who are part of the African diaspora whose work probes key cultural and political questions of our time. It will include new commissions and recent works by by Barby Asante, Phoebe Boswell, Kimathi Donkor, and others. Curator Paul Goodwin says the exhibition will center the works, instead of focusing on Blackness itself. “Questions of Blackness, race, and identity are shown to be entangled in the multitude of concerns—aesthetic, material, and political—that viewers can encounter without the curatorial voice obscuring the works,” he says.


Ad Minoliti
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
April 1–March 13

Ad Minoliti, <i>Cubes</i>(2019). Image courtesy Ben Davis.

Ad Minoliti, Cubes (2019). Image courtesy Ben Davis.

This is the Argentinian artist’s biggest exhibition, and first institutional UK show, to date. The artist, whose work was included in the 2019 Venice Biennale, is known for making colorful paintings and installations that grapple with queer theory and feminism. The show is conceived as space of respite away from the constaints of gender binary, human-centered art and life, in what the artist calls an “alien lounge.” It will host bi-weekly workshops as part of Minoliti’s Feminist School of Painting, which will tackle traditional painting genres in an effort to reimagine historical narratives from feminist, intersectional, and queer perspectives.


A Fire in My Belly
Julia Stoschek Collection, Berlin
February 6–December 12

Laure Prouvost <i>They Parlaient Idéale</i> (2019). Courtesy of the artist und carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

Laure Prouvost They Parlaient Idéale (2019). Courtesy of the artist und carlier | gebauer, Berlin/Madrid.

Curator Lisa Long is planning a major exhibition drawing on Stoschek’s collection, which includes challenging and cathartic pieces by artists including Barbara Hammer, Anne Imhof, Adrian Piper, and Arthur Jafa. The viewer will be positioned as a witness to acts of violence in a brave look at how it is represented, distributed, and circulated. Rarely seen pieces and several new works that were recently purchased will be on view. The show’s title, “A Fire in My Belly,” is an homage to the seminal work of the same name by American artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, which will also be on view.



Hito Steyerl
Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
February 3–June 7

How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic EducationalHito Steyerl (2013). Image courtesy of the artist, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York and Esther Schipper, Berlin .

The acclaimed German artist’s largest-ever show in France was pushed back from its original date last summer. The exhibition, which was first presented last fall at K21 in Düsseldorf, includes a best-of of Steyerl’s major works, including her break-out 2013 piece, How not to be seen, and Factory of the Sun from the 2015 Venice Biennale, as well a new production. Part of the show will incorporate the unique architecture of the Centre Pompidou as a point of departure.


Beuys: 2021
Various Venues in Europe
Throughout 2021

Joseph Beuys Photo: Behr/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Joseph Beuys Photo: Behr/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The conceptual artists is the subject of a major blockbuster program next year that will take place in 12 German cities, as well as in Warsaw, Poland, Vienna, Austria, and Manresa, Spain. We are particularly looking forward to the exhibition at K20 in Düsseldorf, called “Everyone Is an Artist: Cosmopolitan Exercises With Joseph Beuys,” which opens on March 27. The show will presents many contemporary artists in dialogue with Beuys, questioning or expanding on the practice of this most enigmatic artist. In October 2021, the Krefeld Museum will offer the first exhibition ever to juxtaposition Beuys with Marcel Duchamp.


The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
February 12–May 30

Unknown, Multiple leg cuffs for chaining enslaved people, with 6 loose shackles, ca. 1600-1800. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, schenking van de heer J.W. de Keijzer, Gouda.

Unknown, Multiple leg cuffs for chaining enslaved people, with 6 loose shackles, ca. 1600-1800. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, schenking van de heer J.W. de Keijzer, Gouda.

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is planning a major show that looks at the history of slavery across the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. The show will look at the Dutch involvement in the slave trade, taking up 10 true stories of individuals who were either victims or profiteers of the trade. More than 100 objects and artworks will be on view from the Rijksmuseum collection and elsewhere. “This past has long been insufficiently examined,” museum director Taco Dibbits said.


Yayoi Kusama: A Retrospective
Gropius Bau, Berlin
March 19–August 1

Yayoi Kusama, <I>Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show</i> (1963). Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

Yayoi Kusama, Aggregation: One Thousand Boats Show (1963). Courtesy: Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

This major survey show will focus on the early development of Yayoi Kusama’s work, including the early paintings and sculptures that eventually led to her immersive environments, which will also be on view. The show is curated by the museum’s director, Stephanie Rosenthal, in collaboration with Kusama’s studio, and charts the Japanese artist’s often overlooked activities in Europe and Germany from the 1960s onward. The show will travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in late 2021.


Various Venues, Arnem
April 10–June 21

sonsbeek curatorial team. Courtesy sonsbeek.

Sonsbeek’s curatorial team. Courtesy sonsbeek.

Taking place about every four years, “Sonsbeek” brings international artists to the small town of Arnem in the Netherlands. This edition is helmed by the Berlin-based curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who has turned the concept for the exhibition on its head: it will now open in 2021 and will unfold over the next four years. Topics including race, gender, and the state of the working class will be central to the show, which includes artists Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Laure Prouvost, Oscar Murillo, and Willem de Rooij, among others.

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