January 2012

NOTES & COMMENTS

In order to complete work on major projects, we have suspended full publication of Aristos until further notice. Meanwhile, we will be posting dated commentary and news items on this page each month.


2011: August / September / October / November / December
2012: February


2/25 - Pouring Paint
The recent demise of Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) has once again raised the question of abstract art's value. Frankenthaler is widely celebrated as a seminal figure in the "color field" movement, which succeeded the first wave of Abstract Expressionism. Inspired by Jackson Pollock, she developed a technique of pouring turpentine-thinned paint directly onto unprimed canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave--creating a limpid watercolor effect. Her breakthrough painting employing this method was Mountains and Sea (1952). New York Times critic Grace Glueck calls it "a diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water" (obituary, December 27, 2011). And Eric Gibson of the Wall Street Journal opines that "For all its abstractness, [it] is fundamentally a landscape painting" ("Pushing Past Abstraction," December 28, 2011). But is it?

Chance played no small part in the work's creation, and Frankenthaler's own comments argue against any intention to create a landscape. "What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it's pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it," she once declared. "What concerns me is--did I make a beautiful picture?"

Gibson rightly insists that "Art needs to be about life," and that critic Clement Greenberg's purely formalist view of abstract art was "too narrow and insubstantial a foundation on which to erect an enduring vision," for it ignored meaning. He credits Frankenthaler with rescuing abstract painting from "decorative emptiness" by "making it once again an instrument of meaningful expression." But should the serendipitous result of pouring paint [more] onto a canvas, without any clear intent to represent anything, be thought to constitute meaningful expression--much less art? We think not.