Helen Frankenthaler’s ‘Scarlatti’ & ‘the gods may pursue their amours’
by Venetia Kapernekas
“There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”
exhibition installation photos ©Joe Kramm, Jason Mandella, courtesy of Yares Art Gallery, New York & Santa Fe
Yesterday, a sunny friday afternoon I walked down on 5th avenue (745 5th) visiting Yares gallery to gaze for third time ( last day of exhibition yesterday) an extraordinary unfolding of miraculous paintings by Helen Frankenthaler (paintings are ranging from 1957 to 1990). An unforgettable experience as the bright afternoon spring New York light vaporing generously in the gallery. This morning I am reading the remarkable foreword by Dr Alexander Nemerov in beautifully published book by Yares gallery while I am listening to allegro and andante sonatas Scarlatti on piano played by Vladimir Horowitz, my memory is vivid and alive of the magnificent “Scarlatti” painting (1987) (224×288.9 cm, private collection) as Helen Frankenthaler had heard on a recording (Vladimir Horowitz at the piano two weeks earlier when she completed this painting. (see footnote *2)
Prof. Alexander Nemerov on his introduction “The Gods May Pursue Their Amours’ on the beautiful book that has been published for this exhibition, edition 750 (footnote*1) writes…
photos ©Nefeli Brandhorst, New York, May 19, 2019
The blue of Helen Frankenthaler ‘ Scarlatti is the blue of the sky. A bright transparent blue, as of cerulean and ozone, it evokes the brilliant summer day in 1987 on which Frankenthaler completed it –a day that reminded her of the sparkling music of the 17th century Neapolitan composer Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), which she had heard on a recording ( 2 weeks earlier. (footnote*2)
(Scarlatti,1987, acrylic on canvas, 222 x 288.9 cm, photo ©Jason Mandella
The blue of ‘Scarlatti’ sky is the blue of the composer’s Italian contemporary, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo (1696-1770), a prolific painter of the Rococo whose art Frankenthaler admired. Fresh out of Bennington College in the early 1950s, she saw Tiepolo paintings in the Old Master gallery of her former roommate’s father, Saemy Rosenberg: ‘really fine examples” of the painters’ work Throughout her life, Frankenthaler loved Old Master paintings, and would sometimes directly base her pictures on them..
Prof. Alexander Nemerov continues,
Before Tiepolo and other Old Masters, Frankenthaler’s measure of adoration was analytical but finally speechless. With her nephew, the artist Clifford Ross, she would go to the Metropolitan in the 1970s and 1980s, and gaze at the paintings of Tiepolo ‘s Venetian predecessors __Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. They would talk about what made the paintings great but they never veered into recondite art-history lessons. Then _ the best part_ they would fall into an appreciative silence, a stupefied delight, punctuated now and then by one Frankenthaler’s terms of highest praise : the paintings were “knock outs,” “they were terrific.”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo ‘Apollo Pursuing Daphne’,ca.1755/1760 (68.5 x 87 cm).Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Samuel H.Kress Collection (detail)
“…Before Tiepolo’s ‘Apollo Pursuing Daphne (ca.1755/1760) a painting that came into the National Gallery’s collection in 1952, just as her career was starting. Frankenthaler might have stopped and stared whenever she was in Washington. She might have admired Apollo’s bursting energy, his radiant halo, the circle of it rhyming with the black mouth of the urn She might have loved the laurel branches that grow from Daphne’s hands, not to mention the weird and even perverse correspondence of Daphne and the cray-bearded river god slumped on the urn, their paired bodies looking a bit like the same figure shown from the front and the back. To die for was the contract of cloaks, the sweep of Apollo’s gold garment contrasting with he river god’s soggy red one. But she might have loved most that blue sky, with its soft white clouds, which imparts a lightness as of helium, to even the grievous emotions of deities. Those skies are richly different from the other azures Frankenthaler had at her command, the ocean blue of ‘Pavillion’ of 1971, for instance, with it Sgt. Pepper palette and exuberance, as of ta scarf blowing in a slipstream. Scarlatti, by contrast, is a dream of Tiepolo, of his sparkling scenes, his brilliant summer days.
exhibition installation photos ©Joe Kramm, Jason Mandella, courtesy of Yares Art Gallery, New York & Santa Fe (Scarlatti,1987, acrylic on canvas, 222 x 288.9 cm – seen at right of image)
But the blue of Scarlatti show no empyrean romp of gods. The blue is the blue of a room. The creamy architectonic lines in the lower part of the paintings make a floor or a tabletop. The lines extending from the midpoint of the left and right edges of the canvas suggest the meeting point of a wall and floor. The pure blue rectangle at upper right might be a window. Even the largest Frankenthaler paintings “project a specifically human space, responsive to emotion, tangibly perceived.” in the works of her close friend, the writer, Sonya Rudikoff. Her paintings present “a space of human scale, imaginatively, sensuously, visually.” (Alexander Nemerov, ‘The Gods may pursue their Amours’)”
Artwork by Helen Frankenthaler © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
photos ©Nefeli Brandhorst, New York, May 19, 2019
The ancient Greek legend of the water nymph Daphne, who was changed by her father, a river god, into a laurel tree to escape the unwanted love of Apollo, symbolized during the Renaissance the belief that selfish love is doomed to fail. The ability to portray not only the atmospheric quality of light, but a wide range of character and emotions, ranks Tiepolo among the most inventive and technically proficient artists in history.
Prof. Alexander Nemerov concludes with these poetic words …”the brilliant day is not proof of a higher exultation. The window into which the sunlight flows, like the viewer whose face and body the light will bathe, receives the glowing warmth without any revelation except the desire let loos by sun and sky. This desire is a feeling, sometimes called the feeling of being alive –of being alive on a specific day, in a specific place –a feeling as physical and immediate as Van Gogh might have felt in some olive grove or down some cobblestoned street beneath the stars. It amounts to an ecstasy: a sense that art might provide a proof, if only one that evaporates even as it manifests, that a sense of abundant life –the sunlight, the blue sky –can permeate our private beings and make us feel less alone.’ (Dr Alexander Nemerov, ‘The Gods may pursue their Armour, Helen Frankenthaler, Yares Art, New York, 2019)
*1.’Helen Frankenthaler/Selected Paintings/edition of 750 (Editorial and Design Productions, SNAP editions, New York, Editorial: Sarah S. King, Annikka Olsen, Nathan Jones, David Ebony and Ted Mooney; Design; Tim Laun and Nathalie Weeding, Printing: Brilliant Graphics, Exton, PA; Exhibition photos: Joe Kramm, Jason Mandella
*2 Oral history interview with Helen Frankenthaler, 1968,Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C
A scholar of American art, Nemerov writes about the presence of art, the recollection of the past, and the importance of the humanities in our lives today. Committed to teaching the history of art more broadly as well as topics in American visual culture–the history of American photography, for example–he is a noted writer and speaker on the arts. His most recent books are Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov (2015), Wartime Kiss: Visions of the Moment in the 1940s (2013) and Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War(2010). In 2011 he published To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America (2011), the catalogue to the exhibition of the same title he curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Among his recent essays are pieces on Danny Lyon, William Eggleston, Bill Yates, and Gregory Crewdson.
Nemerov’s new book, Soulmaker: The Times of Lewis Hine,appeared in 2016, published by Princeton University Press.