Safety Curtain 2015/2016

Helen & Gordon

She is surrounded by her paintings as if they were tapestries taking up almost the entire image space and draping her with their colours like a pictorial echo chamber. Helen Frankenthaler is in her studio sitting on her own painting. Her angled legs are covered in the smooth fabric of a tight fitting skirt the colour of oatmeal; she is slightly bent forward and leaning on her hand for balance. She is barefoot. Her hair appears as black as ink, her skin of an aristocratic pallor. In the original photo (which served as a template for the re-enactment by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster) she looks directly into the camera while the photographer is clearly positioned above her yet bending down and attending to her.

Painting as the centre of gravity for an educated woman who studied at Bennington College – it is thus that Helen Frankenthaler presents herself in the edition of Life magazine of 13 May 1957. In a colour photo essay spread over four pages a new generation of women artists is introduced one after the other, featuring them as “women artists in ascendance”, a young group that “reflects lively virtues of U.S. painting”. Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Nell Blaine, Joan Mitchell, Jane Wilson – five women, none of them over thirty-five, all of them representing the dynamics of post-war art.

So, there they are, these “outstanding” women (according to the introductory text) surrounded by their paintings and in between an advertisement for Jantzen sportswear and a page praising Sanka coffee. They are neither muse nor submissive. Their clothes, however, although definitely “cool” with regard to the New Look en vigeur, are not really appropriate when compared to the legendary images of male painters at work. Helen Frankenthaler’s salmon pink shirt tied at her waist and the decently arranged skirt seem hardly befitting for the activity of someone who has just “renewed” Action Painting. By lending an even more liquid quality to the interaction of the colours themselves as well as with the fabric of the canvas – a canvas they blot and inundate and which in turn drinks them up and absorbs them – she has pushed Jackson Pollock’s gesture of “dripping” into a new and in effect irreversible direction. The fluidity of her painting is in stark contrast with the artist’s outfit in white and pink, the latter revealing what the psychoanalyst Joan Rivière calls “womanliness as masquerade” rather than masquerade of womanliness.

Perhaps this billposting of Frankenthaler’s “female” femininity within the vibrant and liquid chamber of her paintings is also an illustration of the paradox of the so-called “woman artist” – two terms linked together without having to choose between them and yet a permanent balancing act in which its bearer has to be constantly on guard that the one doesn’t eclipse the other. Unlike the “Deuxième Sexe” of art (let’s remember that the French original of the eponymous book by Simone de Beauvoir was published in 1949), men do not have to attach their gender to their work. By
sitting in the midst of her paintings, the artist’s body indicates that the painting is her space, that in it she is subject, not object. But it is at rest and shows nothing of the physical force of the close combat inherent in these paintings.

It should also be mentioned here that the original photo – just like the ones of the other artists – was taken by Gordon Parks. He was the first African-American photo reporter to become a member of staff at the illustrious Life magazine. The association of these new models of femininity – of the “woman artist” – and the photo journalist whose fame was not so much founded on his portraits of celebrities but on his bitter account of racism, segregation and poverty (Parks was to become one of the most significant documentarians of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.) clearly requires some consideration. For, what is shown in the photo series in Life magazine (even if the work was commissioned) is simply the sketch of a collective representation of individual personalities. These women of the new generation are presented to the public in their informal environment as a group, thereby turning them into representatives of an art world in transformation. Liberated from men, they are “women among themselves” (“Femmes entre elles” like the French title of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1955 film “Le amiche”/ “The Girlfriends” which is based on the short story by Cesare Pavese called “Tra donne sole”/ “Among Women Only”).

At the opening of Frankenthaler’s exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York on 12 February 1957, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were photographed together, smiling. As a trio, the friends are later dubbed “The Vocal girls” by Time magazine. In the snapshot they are sitting like accomplices under Planetarium, a 1956 painting by Frankenthaler. These friendships among women artists, which for them were probably crucial, may be the best kept secret of the 1950s. There is a general preference to associate Frankenthaler with the critic Clement Greenberg, her partner between 1950 and 1955, and with her marriage in 1958 to the painter Robert Motherwell, with whom she formed a “golden couple”.

Perhaps it is this female sociability Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster follows up on in her re-enactment for the Safety Curtain of the legendary photograph of Helen Frankenthaler by Gordon Parks. By revealing once more the staginess of a photograph that exhibits both the “woman” and the “artist”, she renews and brings up to date not only the aesthetic but also the political challenge of a practice of fluidity.

Élisabeth Lebovici