This painting is abstract, meaning, I suppose, that anything I say about it might be right. But what of it? “To be right,” as the painter Franz Kline once said, “is the most terrific personal state that nobody is interested in.”
I’m going to say, rightly or wrongly, that it’s beautiful. What’s more (and isn’t this the best kind of beauty?), it’s unexpectedly so. The colors, individually, are tepid. But the artist, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), has somehow made these retiring, wallflower hues hum. Softly harmonized, they unfurl across the canvas according to a subtle logic of color wheel adjacency: purple morphs into mauve, pistachio into mint green, ocher into mustard.
The painting, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is big — over nine feet high and almost six feet wide. But from the way the paint has been applied, I get an impression of delicacy and weightlessness. Frankenthaler painted the work, which she titled “Jacob’s Ladder,” in 1957, using a method that, since her breakthrough painting “Mountains and Sea” five years earlier, she had turned into a signature style.
Thinning out her oil paints with turpentine, she let the liquid seep into the unprimed cotton canvas. This staining or dying effect makes the medium appear more like watercolor than oil paint and creates the impression that the image is integrated into the canvas rather than superimposed on it. Frankenthaler’s approach, endorsed by her partner at the time, the critic Clement Greenberg, gave birth to a whole school, known as color field painting.
In his attempts to capture the depthless, fog-thickened atmosphere of the River Thames, James McNeill Whistler had developed a similar method in the 1870s. He gave his paintings musical titles — “Composition,” “Arrangement” and “Nocturne”; an early step toward abstraction. Like Whistler, Frankenthaler had a feeling for the way landscape and air interact. But she was not trying to evoke any specific place. Inspired by Jackson Pollock, whose drip paintings she first saw in the early 1950s, she was drawn to mood, emotion, the poetry of color and shape.
There is a lot of variation in “Jacob’s Ladder.” Note the pinwheeling commas around the disc-like blobs in the upper part, and the more opaque, rectangular shapes (one positive, one negative) in the lower segment. Quite a lot of the canvas has been left bare, so that the forms are allowed to breathe and the work, like a Chinese ink painting of cloud-enfolded peaks, is made more conducive to reverie.
Pollock’s profound impact on Frankenthaler is well-documented. Once acknowledged, the unfortunate tendency has been to subordinate Frankenthaler’s vision — of supposedly “feminine” lightness and delicacy — to Pollock’s supposedly macho heroics. This ignores so much, not least the slenderness of Pollock’s achievement (his influence was immense, but he was a one trick pony) and precisely its weightlessness, its delicacy. After all, Pollock painted works with titles like “Lavender Mist.” His best drip paintings achieve a kind of shimmering, scrim-like stillness, as of distant galaxies. (Less generously, the painter Francis Bacon called them “tired old lace.”)
Still, the differences between Frankenthaler and Pollock are marked. Where Pollock’s paint flies, wheels and loops, forming patterns that stretch evenly across the entire canvas, Frankenthaler’s stains and pools. Looking at it is like staring at one half of a Rorschach blot.
Frankenthaler was onto something, I think, in her willingness to cede control in her search for new expressions of beauty. She insisted neither on symmetry nor on the implied order of repeating patterns. Embracing chance, she let the image grow organically. Her titles (in this case a biblical reference: Jacob dreaming of a ladder leading to heaven) were afterthoughts. They shed no real light.
In the end, her paintings provide a blessed escape from narrative. They make you feel free.