Mothers of Invention: Helen Frankenthaler

At the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Mass.

Originally published August 12, 2018

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio "in the woods." For those familiar with Provincetown, the location was near Nelson's Riding Stable, on the road to Race Point

Image from the press release

With Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, the famed artist has come home. A longtime summer resident of the town, Frankenthaler had a succession of studios in which the ocean and its legendary light flowed onto her canvases. Curated by Lise Motherwell, a stepdaughter who has been intimately involved with the museum, and Elizabeth Smith, a founding director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, the exhibition focuses on the paintings Frankenthaler created during summers spent living and working at the tip of Cape Cod.

This is the first of three galleries devoted to the exhibition in which paintings are displayed chronologically. The painting on the left, Untitled, 1950, was likely made when Frankenthaler was studying with Hofmann. The wall photo is another shot of her "in the woods" studio. This gallery also contains memorabilia and a timeline of Frankenthaler in Provincetown, which we'll look at on the way out

Initially drawn to Provincetown to study with Hans Hofmann in 1950, she then took up summer residence there with Robert Motherwell, whom she married in 1958, and his daughters, Lise and Jeannie. By all accounts, summers in Provincetown were not lazy days at the beach but studio days. Using the soak-and-stain technique she pioneered, Frankenthaler poured paint onto unstretched canvases placed on the floor. Though she was admant that she was not painting scenes of the ocean and the atmospheric beauty that envelops Provincetown, she allowed that the emotional “climate” of place infused her abstractions.

Panorama of Gallery 2. We'll tour the work in the following photos

At left: Abstract Landscape, 1951, oil and charcoal on canvas

Above and below: Two views of Provincetown Series, 1960, watercolor on panel

Sea Picture with Black, 1959; oil, enamel, and crayon on primed canvas

Detail below

Beach Horse, 1959, oil on linen

Panorama of Gallery 3, the Hans Hofmann Gallery

Top: Provincetown, 1964, acrylic on canvas

Bottom: Summer Scene: Provincetown, 1961, acrylic on canvasboard

The Cape, 1962, oil on canvas

Blue Atmosphere, 1963, acrylic on canvas

Breakwater, 1963, acrylic on canvas

Detail below

Cool Summer, 1962, oil on canvas

Detail below

Continuing around the gallery

Over the Circle, 1961, oil on sized and primed canvas

Provincetown Window, 1963-64, acrylic on canvas

Continuing around with Provincetown Window and The Bay

The Bay, 1963, acrylic on canvas

Back in the first gallery, we encounter this timeline

Frankenthaler had three successive studios in Provincetown.

At far left, Frankenthaler and Motherwell shared space in a building at Day's Lumberyard in the summers of 1961 and 1962, she on the first floor, he on the second. To the right of that b/w shot photo is an interior view of Frankenthaler's studio in the building. To the right of that is "Sea Barn," the three-story home she shared with Robert Motherwell, where they both had studios. The large vertical b/w photo, which you see larger below, is of Frankenthaler's studio "in the woods." 

Frankenthaler in her "in the woods" studio 

Below: Frankenthaler swimming the the Bay with "Sea Barn," her home and studio, visible behind her. I shot both photos from the timeline

One of the things I learned from the catalog is that Motherwell bought the property at 631 Commercial Street, had it razed, and then constructed a three-story building of his own design. Frankenthaler's studio was on the second floor, Motherwell's on the third. The arched doors on the street-facing view are a nod to the first studio they shared at Days Lumberyard (a building and complex that is now home to the Fine Arts Work Center). Since the home is a literal two-minute walk from PAAM in the East End of Town, I completed my afternoon by stopping by the building and taking a few photographs.

Recently renovated and "reimagined," according to the information about it (it's now available as a rental under a new owner) the building now boasts new back decks and an extended first floor, which opens to a wooden deck. The concrete berm behind the house seems to have been removed so that the deck extends to a sandy beach.

Below: Street view of "Sea Barn" as it exists now

Panorama from the sandy beach with a horizon and its ever-changing atmosphere that Frankenthaler would have seen every day

How women get erased from history. Frankenthaler lived here, too.

She escaped anonymity, but history is stuffed with the women who were not included in it.

This placard is to the left of the bottom left window.

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