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Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on unsized, unprimed canvas, 219.4 x 297.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Steven] We're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. looking at a large canvas by Helen Frankenthaler called Mountains and Sea. - [Beth] And it dates to 1952. - [Steven] Frankenthaler is reported to have recently gone to Cape Breton, in norther Nova Scotia where the mountains really do meet the sea and we can make out a blue horizon line on the right side of the canvas but when we look at the center of the canvas or the left side, this is abstract painting. - [Beth] Abstract art emerges in the United States in the lat 1940's, early 1950's with artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Artists who are interested in expressing ideas, through color, through gesture and we see that here but we see a different kind of application of paint. - [Steven] One of the great champions of abstract expressionism was a critic whose name is Clement Greenburg and Greenburg loved the way that people like Pollock seemed to pushing ideas that had developed in the late 19th century with people like Cezanne and then early in the 20th century with artists like Matisse to an even greater level of abstraction. Pollock was willing to give up reference to specific elements in the world. He was painting about the act of painting. - [Beth] Or so Greenburg theorized. Greenburg is seeing this development toward an interest in the materials. The paint and the canvas, getting away from the illusionism that western art was about for hundreds of years. - [Steven] And belief that art would be at its strongest if it was truthful about what it was. What Frankenthaller develops in this canvas is the idea that she can stain the canvas. That the paint becomes almost like fresco, embedded within the weave of the material. - [Beth] As soon as we make a mark on a canvas, our brains interpret that as a figure that sits on it. How do you deny that illusion that our brain immediately jumps to? - [Steven] But Frankenthaler is not trying to enact Clement Greenburg's theories here. It's her direct response to the canvas. - [Beth] And to the landscape, to the mountains and the see of Cape Breton. - [Steven] It is clearly a landscape at the right side and then that completely falls apart. - [Beth] We read the sea and the horizon line and the blue at the right but then this vertical form that rises towards the center tapers off towards the left almost like a giant pyramid, looks as though it moves toward us instead of mountains receding in space. - [Steven] At the same time this charcoal line, that is emphatically a drawing on the canvas. - [Beth] And those lines feel very biomorphic to me. Very organic and so it makes it even harder, I think, to read a mountain there. - [Steven] And then there are feels of color that are also amorphous, that dissolve and cool and paint that has been thinned and poured into the canvas itself. - [Beth] And sometimes the color of that stain is indistinguishable or very close to the color of the canvas underneath it and you expect the staining of the paint to follow those charcoal lines but they seem very much independent of one another and there are places where the paint is clearly splashed on, other places where it's pooled and where you can see at the edges it's a little bit thicker 'cause it's sat there longer. - [Steven] This painting is celebrated because it is the first painting of a group of artists Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler, that would use staining as a technique to create this embedded, intentional, two dimensionality. - [Beth] And to me, what that does is in some ways remove that sense of the presence of the artist which is so clear in paintings by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. You don't get that sense of gesture that you do with those abstract expressionists although we do have that in the drawing and the splashes of the paint. - [Steven] You use the word biomorphic to refer to the shapes here and that's a reminder of the biomorphism. There was a part of surrealism earlier in the century. The work for instance, of Miro or Arshile Gorky, allowing the unconscious to directly express itself on the canvas. - [Beth] We can see this as an intuitive response to the landscape, almost involving the unconscious without representing, factually the mountains and the sea. - [Steven] We go back to this important, early painting by Helen Frankenthaler because it is such a brave intersection of all of these conflicting issues and ideas. (upbeat piano music)