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Seeing what Helen Frankenthaler saw in the seascapes of Provincetown

The abstract painter took inspiration from the unique landscapes of Provincetown.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

PROVINCETOWN — “My work is full of climates,” the abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler once said. That helps explain a fertile decade of summers she spent in Provincetown in the 1950s and ’60s, where temperamental bouts of muggy heat, fog, wind, rain, and radiant, unbound sunshine fueled dozens of glorious works. The paintings are free, unfettered, changeable, often at epic scale. They’re not of Cape Cod, surely — Frankenthaler, a leading light of abstract purity, painted feelings and moods rather than places and things. But the Cape is in every one of them — landscapes not of dunes and scrubby pines and vast spans of beach and sea, but of a mind and soul in tune with its fluid beauty.

I made the trek to Provincetown one chilly afternoon this month as a northeastern gale propelled fine raindrops to near horizontal. I was looking for Frankenthaler’s Cape, her perch on that slim finger of sand poking into the North Atlantic where, for a time, she found perfect balance — life, love, and work in enviable equilibrium.


Helen Frankenthaler’s “Flood,” from 1967. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Copyright 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On Marconi Beach, angry sea-green waves thundered a spray of foam. Windows all over Provincetown were shuttered against the growing storm. Frankenthaler’s summer idyll here — trees heavy with leaves, the dunes flecked with flowers and grass, the harbor brimming with boats — felt unimaginably distant, as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope. What I could see was vivid all the same — the heavy mist, the milky sky, the soft seam where sand meets sea. It’s a world of color and texture. For a sensualist painter like Frankenthaler, devoted to the undulations of color and paint thinned to inky, aqueous washes, it must have felt like a dream. Her time here fed more than her practice. It nourished her whole self.


Frankenthaler got her first taste of Provincetown in 1950, when she was not long out of Bennington College. Her boyfriend at the time — Clement Greenberg, no less, the critic who was the architect of American abstraction’s rise to international dominance in the decade prior — had suggested she do a three-week session at Hans Hofmann’s summer art school, where she might build on the early promise of her work.

Dune grass near Provincetown's Race Point Beach.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Hofmann, a German immigrant who’d fled the Nazis before the war, was a bright and ebullient teacher. His arrival in the US was abrupt and well-timed, just as a fresh avant garde had begun to bubble. Back in Europe, Hofmann had palled around with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque; he was close with Robert Delaunay. In the US, Hofmann served to bridge European Modernism and the growing force that Abstract Expressionism, its uniquely American iteration, would become. In his teachings and in his own work, Hofmann was devoted to an abstraction that drew as much from the world outside as the one within. (He once famously counseled Jackson Pollock that nature should guide his work. “I am nature,” the famously surly artist growled.)

Frankenthaler would prove a far more receptive student. With her career blossoming in 1959, she and her new husband, the renowned painter Robert Motherwell, spent their first summer working together on the Cape in Falmouth; after a brief stay in Provincetown the next year, they relocated to Provincetown in a converted warehouse studio at Days Lumberyard in the summer of 1961, which was fast becoming a Modern art hotbed. Soon after came the place that defined their work and life together, divided between studio and the rhythms of familial bliss.


Helen Frankenthaler's "Blue Atmosphere II," 1963.Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. Copyright Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When they worked at the lumberyard studios, they lived in a bright and rambling white clapboard captain’s house near the bay, which Motherwell had bought some years before they were married. Across the street was another house, right on the water; the couple coveted its perch on the shore, waves all but lapping its doorstep. When it went up for sale, they bought it and named it the Sea Barn, with their studios above and living space below. They were so in love with it — Motherwell the soothing churn of the waves, Frankenthaler her daily swim in the bay — they sold the captain’s house soon after and made it their Provincetown home.

Summers were spent with Motherwell’s two daughters from his first marriage, Lise and Jeannie, who Frankenthaler mothered with swimming lessons, impromptu studio dance parties, and jaunts to the burger stand. Snapshots — of Frankenthaler alongside the girls’ lemonade stand or clowning with them in gentle waves — are vivid scenes of a life lived fully. Frankenthaler and Motherwell decamped to Provincetown in the summer to avoid distraction — back in New York, dealers and critics and curators were forever dropping in. The Sea Barn, on purpose, didn’t have a phone. But children and family were fruitful diversions. Frankenthaler may never have been more productive.


Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, 1961.Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Papers, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York

You can walk past the Sea Barn on Commercial Street, or the captain’s house across the street, though its tidy white fence and lush hedgerow keep you at a distance. But you can still stand on the brick sidewalk beside it, where Frankenthaler kept her white Fiat convertible, and where that lemonade stand once stood. And you can hear the rain and waves and gulls across the street. And you can smell the salt, like Frankenthaler and Motherwell did in studios flush with the breeze.

In 2018, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum opened “Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown.” Curated by Lise Motherwell and Frankenthaler Foundation director Elizabeth Smith, it showed dozens of works painted down the street and around the corner, from those formative sessions with Hofmann through her last summer there in 1969. The show later traveled to the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, N.Y. — because, my God, who wouldn’t want such an extravagantly gorgeous thing? — but there’s no denying the art’s natural home.

One of Frankenthaler’s first paintings on the Cape, “Provincetown Harbor,” from 1950, comes as close to an actual scene as you’ll find — is that a horizon line, a billow of cloud, sandy flats stretched for miles at low tide? Despite the teasing titles, she captured feelings, visual echoes of moments past. “Seascape With Dunes” is a riot of inky, earthy blots and stains, nearly 12 feet long. “Sea Picture With Black,” from 1959, is an eruption of liquid blue, black, and pink, like a wave pounding the shore.


Helen Frankenthaler's "Sea Picture With Black," 1959. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Susan Morse Hills © 2020 HELEN FRANKENTHALER FOUNDATION, INC. / ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), New York

It was here that Frankenthaler refined her signature technique, thinning acrylic paint to a liquid state before applying it directly to raw canvas. For many of us, that staining, that delicate rawness, is her. Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and de Kooning left tracks on the canvas in thick impasto, robust gesture frozen in paint; but Frankenthaler’s touch was light, as though washed by gentle waves. Where they strove for permanence, she embraced the ephemeral — the fleetingness of mood, changeable as a tide or a summer storm.

Where else could that come from but here, with the sea temperamental, the light and sky ever changing? Am I wrong to see the eternal rhythm of waves lapping a seaweed-blanketed shore in “Blue Atmosphere II,” from 1963, or a sunset from the Race Point Lighthouse in “Flood,” 1967, filtered through deep layers of mid-summer haze? Oh, probably. That’s the thing about abstract work: It confronts you with possibility, and dares you to see. But when I look at Frankenthaler’s work in that happy, sun-filled time, I see one thing for certain: Joy.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.