Michael McNay

Blue territory

It seems that obituaries come thick and fast at the end of the year. And so the news the day after Boxing Day (the day of my father’s funeral four years ago) that the extraordinary painter Helen Frankenthaler had died at the age of 83. Michael McNay’s obituary (which appeared in the Guardian) quoted the critic Nigel Gosling writing on Frankenthaler in May 1964:

If any artist can give us aid and comfort Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft colour on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.

“Dissolving and instinctive and enveloping … “ It was that feminising, that “softening” of Abstract Expressionism, a way of taking all that anger and brutality and violence, and producing something more controlled, but still passionate, that’s what artists such as Krasner and Mitchell and Frankenthaler did. They were on the fringes of the boy’s club that included Pollock and de Kooning and Gorky, but their work is just as important, sometimes more beautiful, more subtle, even gentle.

In his poem, ‘Blue Territory’, taken from the title of one of Frankenthaler’s paintings, Frank O’Hara evokes ‘the flattering end of the world’, the sea, the sky, but also a place beyond human recognition, where ‘we could be alone together at last, one by one’:


                Who needs an ark? A Captain’s table?

                                                                      and the mountains

never quite sink, all blue, or come back

                                                      up, de-

sire, the Father of the messiness of all