Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is the subject of one of the most important exhibitions to come to the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) in its 104-year-old history. “Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown,” opening July 6 and on view through September 2, weaves together the fabric of what makes the very tip of Cape Cod a remarkable arts colony: working artists, families (original or logical) and the light. The show begins with works dating from the time when Frankenthaler studied briefly with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown in 1950, and unfolds with expansive works created from 1960 through 1969, when she summered there with artist Robert Motherwell, her husband from 1958 to 1971.
The exhibition is co-curated by Lise Motherwell — a daughter of Robert Motherwell, stepdaughter of Frankenthaler, and PAAM board president — and Elizabeth Smith, founding executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. It includes intimately scaled early works and larger paintings referencing the sea and landscape, with photographs, letters and ephemera. The curation, intensely considered and beautifully executed, reveals Provincetown’s impact on Frankenthaler as an artist, a stepmother and a wife.
Although she considered herself an abstract expressionist, Frankenthaler was credited with spawning a new art movement, color field painting, when she began to use thinned paints poured onto raw, unsized canvas. “Mountains and Sea” (1952), the seminal example of this inventive way of painting, was made in her studio in New York, on West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, after a trip to Nova Scotia. As with the work of Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler’s spill-stain innovation was a counterpoint, as in music, to his action drip; what defined a painting was becoming new again.
This was a critical moment for Frankenthaler as a creator. “Mountains and Sea” could have been a one-hit wonder — the fate of Cubist Marcel Duchamp and his “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912) — but she continued to take risks and develop her style for decades after. She was already an accomplished artist when she married Motherwell: She had had four solo shows at Tibor de Nagy Gallery; been included in “Young America 1957: Thirty American Painters and Sculptors under Thirty-Five,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and in 1959 would win first prize for “Jacob’s Ladder” at the Premiere Biennale de Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Her paintings retrospective in 1960 at The Jewish Museum, New York established her place as a groundbreaking talent within the Second-Generation Abstract Expressionists.