John Elderfield on Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1951, oil and enamel on canvas, 56 3/8 x 84 1/2 i
Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1951, oil and enamel on canvas, 56 3/8 x 84 1/2 inches (© 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Sam Cornish interviews John Elderfield about Helen Frankenthaler's work from the 1950s on the occasion of the exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Painted on 21st Street - 1950 -1959, at Gagosian Gallery, New York, on view through April 13, 2013.

Elderfield remarks: "Looking again at about thirty of Helen’s great 1950s works, I was especially struck by three things: 1. The extraordinary variety of inventive mark-making in many of the paintings, which belies the idea that Colour Field painting was about creating homogeneous surfaces—but, then, Helen was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, not a Colour Field painter, in the 1950s. 2. The over-all depictive thrust of these canvases. There are some works that read primarily as non-referential, abstract works, but the majority are depictive re-presentations of observed, remembered, and imagined phenomena created by 'abstract' means—which is also to say that she was intolerant of received notions of depiction and abstraction. 3. The fact that every single work is different. The means may be similar, but are certainly not the same from work to work. The organization of certain works are also similar, but never identical. And the imaginative subject of individual works are always different. She never repeats herself."