By Susan Reed Jess Cagle
December 04, 1989 12:00 PM

It is midmorning, and Helen Frankenthaler, 61, the grande dame of American painting, is being interviewed in her Manhattan studio. Interviewed? Perhaps the term is a bit misleading. She’s actually engaged in a mad, Monty Python-esque satire of an interview.

Deeply suspicious of the press, Frankenthaler has required that all questions be submitted in advance. As if that were not sufficient guarantee against the hazards of spontaneity, she has typed her responses on sheets of paper. She begins reading the questions and her answers, when suddenly she stops. Why should she have to do all the work, she demands of the reporter. At least he can read the questions. For the next few minutes, the artist and reporter hand the script back and forth, each reading his and her lines.

In the midst of the most important exhibition of her career—a 40-painting retrospective of her life’s work—Helen Frankenthaler’s forbidding personality looms nearly as large and controversial as her art. The New Yorker has dismissed her work as “boardroom” art, then groused about her “high-priestess airs” and her “unwillingness to be any fun at all on the record.” Her current show opened this summer at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, is currently at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and by next September will have also toured Los Angeles and Detroit. Surprisingly, the much-hyped exhibition has met with a sharply divided reception. Noted New York critic Hilton Kramer raved about it, while Peter Schjeldahl of 7 Days, New York’s ultra-hip cultural gazette, railed against Frankenthaler as an artist of “maximum pretension.”

Despite the controversy, Frankenthaler’s niche in art history is assured. For 40 years she has been a leading Abstract Expressionist, grouped with such illustrious company as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Today Frankenthaler’s distinctive color-washed paintings sell for upward of $120,000. “Art has a will of its own,” she explains. “It has nothing to do with the taste of the moment or what’s expected of you. That’s a formula for dead art, or fashionable art.”

The youngest of three daughters of a New York State Supreme Court judge, Helen attended Bennington College in Vermont. After graduating, she returned to New York City, where she rented a studio, determined to become a painter. Soon she met the influential critic Clement Greenberg at an exhibition. Kismet. Frankenthaler and Greenberg embarked on a five-year love affair during which Greenberg introduced her to young “New York School” painters like Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning and Franz Kline. In 1950 Frankenthaler first saw Pollock’s revolutionary “drip” paintings—he threw paint across the canvas in wild, slashing arcs—and felt a huge jolt of excitement. “It was staggering,” she has said. “I felt, This is where I belong.”

Almost two years later Frankenthaler laid a large piece of unprimed canvas on the floor of her studio and began pouring pools of thinned pink, green and blue paint onto it. The result, Mountains and Sea, was to influence an entire generation of painters who embarked in the 1960s on a new artistic movement called color field painting.

Frankenthaler and Greenberg had separated amicably in 1955, and in 1958 she married Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell. Frankenthaler refuses to discuss the marriage or the divorce that followed 13 years later. Of her single life since, she will only say, “At times I enjoy being alone, at times I don’t.” She leads a comfortable, upper-crust life, working, dividing her time between New York City and a waterfront home in Connecticut. She travels, swims several times a week at the YMCA near her Manhattan town house and gives occasional dinner parties for friends. A diehard Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman fan, she sometimes steals away from work for a noontime matinee. “I’ll take my lunch to the movie—yogurt or shrimps or something—and feel like I’m in another world for a while.” It is in the privacy of her studio that Frankenthaler reveals the lyrical and poetic sides of a personality that so often eludes her critics. When she starts to paint, she shoos her assistant outside and lays 16-foot stretched canvases on the floor. Wearing an apron or white coat, she pours the paint with intense care, manipulating the fluid colors with house brushes, mops and squeegees. Asked to respond to critics who say that her work is too beautiful, she says, “I think people are very threatened by the word beauty today. In some circles the word implies shmaltzy and passé. But the darkest Rembrandts and Goyas, the most somber music of Beethoven, the most tragic poems by Eliot are all full of light and beauty. Great, moving art that speaks the truth is beautiful art.”

—Susan Reed, Jess Cagle in New York City