It is strange that the sculptor John Chamberlain and the painter Helen Frankenthaler should have died within a week of each other — he Dec. 21, and she Dec. 27 — considering that they occupy such similar positions within the history of American art. Both emerged in the 1950s and provided crucial links between art styles, specifically helping to forge the transition from abstract expressionism to what lay beyond.
Both brought a new, unfettered approach to materials that pushed their respective mediums toward greater expressive freedom, unabashed physicality and a rough-edged, aggressively color-based beauty. These qualities became identifying hallmarks of American art, especially in the 1960s, but remain crucial to it even now.
Frankenthaler accomplished this in 1952 with Mountains and Sea, in which she in essence combined the drip technique of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock and the stately fields of saturated color deployed by his colleagues Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. Using paint thinned with turpentine, she fused stained color, raw canvas and gesture, creating a freewheeling composition of blurry shapes, whiplash lines and splatters that looked forever elegantly unfinished, caught in the moment. The pastel palette of predominantly pink and blue were eminently girly; they introduced a persistently inspired and innovative colorist.
Meanwhile, the staining technique introduced in Mountains and Sea was quickly adopted by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis and became fundamental to color field painting. (Those painters, who lived in Washington, were taken to Frankenthaler’s studio to see the work in 1953 by the eminent art critic Clement Greenberg, who was then Frankenthaler’s lover. That she was not present at the time of this historic, oft-cited visit continues to startle.)
The technique was also taken up by a host of other painters only tangentially associated with the movement, among them Paul Feeley, who had been Frankenthaler’s teacher at Bennington College, and Larry Poons, and was perpetuated with many variations in subsequent generations by painters as different as Alan Shields, Stephen Mueller, Moira Dwyer, Monique Prieto and Kelley Walker.
In the second half of the 1950s Chamberlain embraced scraps of discarded car bodies as sculptural material, attracted foremost by their pre-existing color. Further bending and crushing their often mangled shapes, he assembled them into abstract sculptures that offered three-dimensional versions of the dense, colorful enfolded spaces of Willem de Kooning’s abstract expressionist canvases.
These sculptures brought a new level of abstraction to assemblage and the notion of “junk sculpture.” They also helped set the stage for minimalism’s use of industrial materials and its involvement with space itself. In addition, they brought bright color into three dimensions with a new ferocity and sense of possibility that proved especially important to the often intensely hued sculptures of Donald Judd.
At the same time, Chamberlain very much maintained the abstract expressionist persona of the artist as a macho man. It was explicit in his gruff demeanor and hard-drinking lifestyle and implicit in the muscular, somewhat violent process whereby he wrestled his work into existence.
In direct contrast was the intrinsic femininity of Frankenthaler’s work, which seemed to disturb male critics by being too accidental in the early years, and which also attracted feminist analysis as time went on. Though Frankenthaler always kept her distance from feminists, they had a point. The pastels and slithery forms of Mountain and Sea could be read as descending from Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowery colors and labial shapes. Some feminist art historians have suggested that Frankenthaler’s stain technique could perhaps even be likened to menstruation.