Helen Frankenthaler’s Provincetown years were peppered with painting and parenting, swimming and socializing. “My sister Jeannie and I lived with Helen and our father, Robert Motherwell, for a decade of Provincetown summers during the 1960s,” wrote Lise Motherwell in a catalog essay for an exhibition of her stepmother’s work at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum four years ago. “She was a parent, friend, confidant, fellow passionate traveler, [and] a fierce competitor in the art world.”
Co-curated by Lise Motherwell (who is chair of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and president of PAAM’s board), that 2018 exhibition showcased Frankenthaler’s monumental oils and acrylics as well as a series of five watercolors that the artist made in Provincetown in 1960. Some of the watercolors had not been shown publicly in nearly 40 years. The series was recently donated to PAAM’s permanent collection by the Frankenthaler Foundation and will be included in PAAM’s “Recent Gifts to the Collection” exhibit, which opens Nov. 18 and will be on view until Jan. 29, 2023.
The show will also include works from other major collections recently given to PAAM, including jewelry by Provincetown metalsmiths donated by Stephen Borkowski and selections from the collections of Robert Duffy and David Murphy.
The Frankenthaler works are the first by the artist to be acquired for PAAM’s permanent collection. “The watercolors — a major series — are our first gift from the Frankenthaler Foundation, one that really filled a big gap for us,” says CEO Christine McCarthy.
While they echo Frankenthaler’s larger works in which free-flowing paint was directly applied onto unprimed canvas, the watercolors are a more intimate reflection of the landscapes the artist experienced during her summers in town.
Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter Jeannie Motherwell exhibits her own abstract work at Provincetown’s Schoolhouse Gallery and sees Frankenthaler’s watercolors through her own lens as a painter.
“What interests me is their square format,” says Jeannie. “I’ve been working on a lot of square small paintings, so it was exciting for me to see Helen’s. Squares are extremely difficult to work with if you want to create visual tension.”
Frankenthaler was 32 when she joined the coterie of abstract painters clustered in Provincetown’s East End. She was already showing in galleries in New York City and had recently married first-generation abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell. Jeannie notes how Frankenthaler responded to the environment of the Outer Cape in her work. Looking at the first painting in the series, she says, “You see that red shape, directing your eye to the right, while the green shapes pull to the left. Your eye moves around the page.”
She finds much to appreciate in Frankenthaler’s Provincetown Series #2 as well. “The blue works really beautifully on the cream paper she’s chosen,” she says. “Blue is the color people are automatically drawn to. And in this particular case, I like the painting because it is so abstract. I feel the blue of the sea. The composition works beautifully within the square. It has weight to it. There’s enough tension in there to make it feel really — definitive! You don’t doubt the decisions she made. That was part of her boldness and strength as an artist.
“Helen captured the inference of Provincetown, the view that I remember and love: the lights, the colors, the shapes, the ripples of water,” Jeannie continues. “I paint differently, but it comes from the same source.”
Measured by the calendar, Helen Frankenthaler’s tenure in Provincetown was relatively brief. But the legacy of this boldly adventurous artist continues to resonate. “There are no rules,” said Frankenthaler. “That is what invention is about.”
Recent Gifts to the Collection
The event: Works by Helen Frankenthaler and others.
The time: Show opens Nov. 18; on view until Jan. 29, 2023.
The place: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St.
The cost: $15 general admission.