Invective Against Swans
Stretching before and after

Helen Frankenthaler wrote of her 1972 painting, ‘Burnt Norton’: 

I was thinking about Eliot, making order out of chaos, of light and dark. Like Eliot’s poem, the painting’s simplicity is arrived at after a great deal of complexity. My work is never playful. This seemed at the time an especially serious and weighty picture to solve.

The resulting work seems to be a distillation of what she found in Eliot’s poem, deceptively simple in its reduction, until you learn that Frankenthaler worked on the grey-blue horizontal line that interrupts the brown near the lower edge of the picture for many weeks until she got it right. Is that line the ‘still point of the turning world’ that Eliot envisioned, something not fixed, but not static? The line hovers in Frankenthaler’s painting, ‘a white light still and moving’; it could be a body of water, a break in the relentless brown of the hulking shape that dominates the canvas – a dark mountain range. There is a dip, a view through to a lighter horizon tinged with rose (the exact colour of ‘dust on a bowl of rose leaves’), something seen but not quite reached. 

Eliot’s poem is about time, how from the present moment stretches both past and future. In Frankenthaler’s painting, it is tempting to see that line she struggled with for so long as the present, the dark mountain as the past, the rosy glow in the distance as the future. But that is perhaps too simple – a way of desiring meaning from a painter whose vision is never absolute. In that respect, Eliot is Frankenthaler’s perfect poet, dense and difficult in his subjects, but light and lyrical in his words. 

Walking around the current Making Painting show at Turner Contemporary, I was struck again by what a brave painter Frankenthaler was, how she took all those butch abstract expressionist movements and softened them. But that makes her sound uncertain, and her canvases are big, bold, exploring colour and light the way Matisse did, but with the lyrical focus of Monet (I found the show’s attempt at a comparison with Turner distracting – he’s not the first painter I would think of as an influence on Frankenthaler, although when you look at their approach to similar subjects, of course there are some similarities). A film of her working shows her kneeling over a huge canvas placed on the floor – the technique of Pollock’s which freed her. But unlike Pollock, all bravado and splash, her gestures are slow, deliberate. And yet she is not as famous as he is, although she deserves to be. You look at Frankenthaler’s work and see the whole scope of Color Field painting opening up with those first grand gestures. 

Frank O’Hara knew it. Eliot, for all his classicism, would not be the right poet to repay the compliment. O’Hara wrote of Frankenthaler’s work:

she is the medium of her material, never polishing her insights into a rhetorical statement, but rather letting the truth stand forth plainly and of itself.

But Eliot was more in my mind than O’Hara as I came out onto the front in Margate, thinking again of his efforts to connect nothing with nothing, and how Frankenthaler somehow nails it.


Blue territory

It seems that obituaries come thick and fast at the end of the year. And so the news the day after Boxing Day (the day of my father’s funeral four years ago) that the extraordinary painter Helen Frankenthaler had died at the age of 83. Michael McNay’s obituary (which appeared in the Guardian) quoted the critic Nigel Gosling writing on Frankenthaler in May 1964:

If any artist can give us aid and comfort Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft colour on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.

“Dissolving and instinctive and enveloping … “ It was that feminising, that “softening” of Abstract Expressionism, a way of taking all that anger and brutality and violence, and producing something more controlled, but still passionate, that’s what artists such as Krasner and Mitchell and Frankenthaler did. They were on the fringes of the boy’s club that included Pollock and de Kooning and Gorky, but their work is just as important, sometimes more beautiful, more subtle, even gentle.

In his poem, ‘Blue Territory’, taken from the title of one of Frankenthaler’s paintings, Frank O’Hara evokes ‘the flattering end of the world’, the sea, the sky, but also a place beyond human recognition, where ‘we could be alone together at last, one by one’:


                Who needs an ark? A Captain’s table?

                                                                      and the mountains

never quite sink, all blue, or come back

                                                      up, de-

sire, the Father of the messiness of all