In the summer of 1963, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell moved their studios into a white-paneled, three-story waterfront property in Provincetown, on the northern tip of the Cape. “It was literally on the bulkhead. They could leap into the bay from the patio,” notes Alicia Longwell, chief curator of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
And Frankenthaler often did. “That proximity to the water — she seamlessly became a part of it,” adds Longwell, referencing both the Abstract Expressionist's penchant for solitary swims and the aqueous quality of her seminal unprimed “soak stain” canvases.
A photograph of the artist submerged beneath the water’s shimmering blue-gray surface but for her bobbing bathing-capped head is featured in “Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown.” The exhibit, on view through Oct. 27, charts the formative summers Frankenthaler spent lolling on the beach and experimenting in the seaside workspace. This is the artist’s first solo show at the Parrish which boasts some 30 paintings and works-on-paper dating from 1950 to 1969 that are informed by the littoral setting, including many outsize, enveloping works that, according to scholar John Elderfield, permits color to “splash and run and rise in tidal layers until it drowns us in fathoms of it.”
A few years earlier, Frankenthaler’s coastal visits had centered on the Hamptons, where she immersed herself in the area’s vibrant natural and artistic milieus and laid the foundation for her signature gestural works credited with spawning the Color Field movement. “The risk-taking she witnessed Jackson Pollock take in his Springs studio — using enamel on canvas rolled out on the floor — convinced her that a real artist goes where no one else has gone,” notes Longwell. “After that, she just went for it.”
Frankenthaler’s watershed painting “Mountains and Sea” followed these encounters along with a sojourn to the Nova Scotian shoreline, a landscape she described to have carried “in my arms,” as opposed to in her mind’s eye. “It’s an interesting way to express it,” says Longwell, “internalizing the landscape in a very physical, rather than intellectual, way.”
Works referencing or produced in the Massachusetts beach community — images like “Summerscene: Provincetown,” “Low Tide,” and “Flood” — reveal an artist absorbed in her surroundings, sensitive to its mutability and in command of the painterly language she adopted to convey it. What Frankenthaler sought to evoke, Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, has noted, was “the climate of a place, not the place itself.”
The immediacy of the works here is heightened by the firsthand accounts of Lise Motherwell, the younger of the artist’s two stepdaughters, who co-curated the show along with Smith and Longwell. “Frankenthaler was close with the girls,” says Longwell. “There is much revealed in her letters and recollections about artists working — and enjoying summer.”
WHAT “Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown”
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Monday and Wednesday-Thursday, through Oct. 27, Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill
INFO $8.50, $6.50 seniors, free ages 17 and younger; 631-283-2118, parrishart.org