Helen Frankenthaler’s “Flirt”

Helen Frankenthaler’s “Flirt”


Helen Frankenthaler’s work has been criticized for using colors that are too sweet. For being too poetic. For being too soft. For being, in other words, too female.

Yet “right out of the gate, Frankenthaler was making history,” writes Ted Loos in Sotheby’s. Frankenthaler, who refined a technique of Jackson Pollock’s, launched the Color Field method of painting in washes of thinned pigment poured directly onto untreated canvas, and influenced Washington Color School founders Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, was simultaneously guilty of being a woman in an aggressively macho art world.

Frankenthaler wanted no quarter for her gender. “For me,” she said, “being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

And viewers look, from their individual perspectives of lives lived either in the privileged center of cultural identity or out on the margins. Those in the center are often ignorant of those who are not, and can find it easy to overlook, dismiss, or minimize the relevance and accuracy of marginalized viewpoints and wisdoms. Those dwelling in the margins, however, tend to see the center clearly. Uncomfortably so. What feels unfamiliar to the center is sometimes then classified as being too much of something—too closely identified with some other race, gender, sexuality, or class. The center might benefit from the occasional application of rose-colored glasses.

It is easy to be blind to the power in pink. To miss the courage present in sweetness. To overlook what is tough and tenacious about beauty. To ignore the fierce, death-defying nature of things that are lyrical.

Unmasking what is hidden and daring to question common assumptions are the tenets of critical thinking, an essential skill for an examined and conscious life and a learning objective for Marquette students. Art teaches this, over and over again, if we look from perspectives not our own and if we remember the world is larger than our own experience. And when we are taught with joy and color and beauty, it is no less profound than angrier, darker lessons.

It’s pink.

Deal with it.

This article appeared in the “Viewer’s Voice” exhibit at the Haggerty Art Museum on the campus of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was published in the museum exhibit catalog in 2013.

For a review in OnMilwaukee.com, click here.



Ted Loos in Sotheby’s (April 1, 2013, http://www.sothebys.com/en/inside/BlogHome/Access/on-the-loos/2013/04/making_their_markf.html).

Gruen, John (1972). The Party’s Over Now: Reminiscences of the fifties—New York’s artists, writers, musicians, and their friends. Viking Press. ISBN 0-916366-54-5.

Helen Frankenthaler, December 12, 1928-December 27, 2011. “Flirt,” 1995, 2003 color screenprint



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