Mark Harden's Artchive Frankenthaler, Helen
Mountains and Sea
Oil on canvas
7' 2 5/8" x 9' 9 1/4"
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here. Text from Arthur Danto, Embodied Meanings.

The Frankenthaler retrospective opens, appropriately enough, with the famous Mountains and Sea of 1952, a painting too beautiful, to use an old fashioned word, to regard merely as a historical moment in the march forward of the modernists, and too compelling, as beauty always is, to see only as a work that influenced some important artists to begin staining canvas. It is beyond question big with a future that would have been invisible when it was made, and so for us big with a past, momentous in the style wars of thirty something years ago. But it is worth the effort to try to see it as it must have been seen before the later history happened, as a cool composition of slender loops passing in and out of diaphanous washes of color pale greens and blues and pinks distantly Cubist but feminized, without the harsh angles, aggressive edges, and dangerous vertices. It is like a dance of seven veils.

As a matter of biography, Mountains and Sea was inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia, but it could as easily be seen as a still life rather than a landscape or not read referentially at all. The picture in the catalogue looks as if it could be a reproduction of an aquarelle. The great achievement, here as in the work that followed it for nearly a quarter century, consists of Frankenthaler's adaptation of the fluidity and transparency of washes over drawn lines, and the luminosity of thin glazes without the fat opacities of oil paint, to the scale of the large canvas, then the format of the Abstract Expressionists. But it would be a wonderful painting even if it had had none of its subsequent influence, and there are passages in it I cannot see too frequently. The string of drips in the upper right corner, for example, allow an archipelago of vibrant dots to form, the brush having discharged its delicate load and then, perhaps, descended to make the streak of pale blue in which the archipelago reappears, faintly, as a dot and then another paler dot. That is as beautiful as painting gets.