Totally Abstract

In a sort of crisscross of creative convergence, two luminaries who were at the forefront of the revolution in American art that was to be known as Abstract Expressionism are again connected in time.

Frankenthaler’s “Mountains and Sea” (1952)

Helen Frankenthaler, whose soak-stained technique later developed into what was called the “Color Field” movement, passed away at age 83 in late December — and this month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jackson Pollock, he of the much-imitated “drip-style,” and of whom Frankenthaler was a disciple.

You can guess I’m taken by the work of these two innovators, whose “painting from above” approach may seem quaint now, but which qualified as a quantum leap in art at the mid-20th century.

Frankenthaler’s method of dropping paint (diluted with turpentine) directly unto unprimed canvas, literally allowing the colors to “soak” unto the surface, seems simple enough, but the results were anything but. Her first major work, Mountains and Sea, is reminiscent of a watercolor, though actually created in oil. Her colleague, Morris Louis, once described Frankenthaler as “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” As critics assemble a final assessment of her legacy, one is left with her own words: “There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.”

Pollock’s “Number 1, 1950” (Lavender Mist)

If Frankenthaler embodied the lyrical aspects of Abstract Expressionism, Pollock exemplified its explosive side. “Jack the Dripper,” as he was dubbed by Time magazine, defied painterly convention in the extreme, with works that remain spellbindingly labyrinthical, as complex as any I can think of.

A fascinating article published last year in Physics Today talks about how Pollock employed elements of fluid dynamics in his pieces, long before analysis by physicists — though a hint could be taken from the artist himself when he declared, “I can control the flow of paint; there is no accident.” (Art and science combine once more.)

The 2012 Pollock centennial will be commemorated with retrospectives around the country and abroad (Japan will feature Pollock in a major exhibition for the first time). And no doubt that Frankenthaler’s passing will generate renewed interest in her work.

Apropos attention for two titans at the heart and soul of modern American art.

Painting from on high: Frankenthaler, above, and Pollock, below, in the ’50s.

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