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The Brooklyn Rail

By: Alfred Mac Adam

The cover photograph for the informative catalogue that accompanies this dazzling show was taken by Hans Namuth and catches Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler at their wedding lunch on April 6, 1958. Her look is all love; Motherwell, averting his gaze from Namuth, has a vacant, slightly ironic expression. Was it because he'd already been married twice and knew that even marriages seemingly made in heaven like this one can have an expiration date? Was he thinking that the 13 year age difference might eventually become a problem? After all, when Motherwell made his trip to Mexico with Roberto Matta in 1941, where the first major exposition of Surrealism was taking place, Frankenthaler was 12 years old, a student at Dalton School, where she would be influenced by Rufino Tamayo.

Of the 29 works included in the show, 16 are by Motherwell and 13 by Frankenthaler. The disparity is insignificant, because the development of each artist's personal style is fully on view here, and neither possesses the lion's share of wall space. But it is Frankenthaler's evolution that is the more fascinating, perhaps because it seems more entirely a matter of her personal will, while Motherwell's development seems to be more a matter of his understanding the relationships between his intellect and influences, his experience and his artistic expression.

Since the marriage began in 1958, the earliest works included by both are from that year. We first encounter a small, 12 × 8 inch mixed-media-on-paper piece by Frankenthaler. A columnar shape dominates the space, but dotting the column are breast-like shapes, almost an evocation of the Ephesian Artemis, a fertility goddess. Recognizable figures are rare in the works by Frankenthaler shown here—two small collages from 1958 and 1959 contain expressionistic faces, one human, the other a cat. The small drawing would seem to be a farewell to representation. Henceforth Frankenthaler would allude to places—Courtyard of El Greco's House (1959) or Pompeii (1965)—but only as a matter of personal nomenclature, a title, rather than representation.

Frankenthaler's problem was the canvas itself: like many painters of the ’50s, she created a space within a space, a delineated area within the framework of the canvas. Then she populated that space with various shapes. As she moves into the ’60s, as we see here in Black with Shadows (1961), she simply floats her shapes and blots on the canvas until, as in Saturn Revisited (1964), she expands her field to the very edges of her canvas. Her discovery of acrylics and her ease in managing them would culminate in her color field work of the same decade and eventually to tour-de-force paintings like the huge, 71 × 177 inches, Blue Reach (1978).

While Frankenthaler is shown evolving, Motherwell’s work in 1958 is fully formed. A large 70 × 99 inch painting like Diary of a Painter (1958) is not a bravura piece by a novice but part of a series of Spanish-inspired works. This is not action painting unless we understand that technique to be governed by a reasonable imagination rather than unleashed passion. The dialectic between black and white or life and death is restrained, not hard fought. Motherwell could have stopped here, but fortunately he did not. One look at Open #93: In Medium Ultramarine Blue with Charcoal Line (1969) and we see Motherwell's commitment to color, to a minimalist vision with echoes from Matisse.

Both Motherwell and Frankenthaler indulged in collage and in doing so produced some of their wittiest and downright funny work. Motherwell's Hein, Ma Vie? (1958), made from oil and pasted papers on industrial corrugated cardboard, with its quotation from a Jules Laforgue title, both reflects his reading as well as a collage tradition that goes back to the earliest days of modernism: it is literary, inscribed in a European cultural tradition. Frankenthaler's Untitled (1958), a mixed media and collage on paper version of an expressionistic cat’s face might be taken from life rather than from the library. Humor is not a matter we associate with great artists, but it is with these star-crossed lovers, both dedicated body and soul to their craft but with the good sense to periodically stop making sense.


Alfred Mac Adam

ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.

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