“One does not look at the sky in its changing aspects,” wrote critic Barbara Rose of Helen Frankenthaler’s painting “Flood,” made in Provincetown in 1967. “One has the sensation of being in the sky, of being exposed bodily to the warmth of sunlight and the churning motion of a gathering storm.”
Frankenthaler spent most summers of the 1960s in Provincetown, painting in the mornings and taking late afternoon swims. Her work was undeniably abstract — she was a leading Abstract Expressionist, and the first Color Field painter — yet the works she made there have titles such as “The Bay,” “Provincetown Window,” and “Blessing of the Fleet.”
“Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown,” opening at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum on July 6, is the first exhibition to examine the painter in relation to a particular place. It also celebrates the fizz and retreat of the Provincetown summers Frankenthaler spent with her husband, painter Robert Motherwell, and his two daughters, Lise and Jeannie.
“Provincetown was initially an escape from the pressures of the New York art world,” says Lise Motherwell, who co-curated the exhibition. She’s sitting in her Cambridge living room, surrounded by her father and stepmother’s paintings.
“My father and Helen had a no-phone policy, and could only be contacted by Western Union or letter,” she says
The exhibition includes documents and photographs of Frankenthaler and her gaggle of family and friends swimming, boating, running a lemonade stand, and more.
“She had a joie de vivre,” says Motherwell, who for two years lived with her father and Frankenthaler in New York as well as Provincetown. “In her studio, we would draw and paint and sing along with Barbra Streisand and dance the Twist.”
Frankenthaler first visited Provincetown in the early 1950s to study with Hans Hofmann (“Abstract Climates” includes works from that period, as well). Compared to other artists, she didn’t exhibit there much. She had a two-person show with her husband at H.C.E. Gallery in 1959. At the museum, two of her paintings appeared in group shows.
But she was productive there, working in three successive studios: First at Days Lumberyard, now home to the Fine Arts Work Center, then along Commercial Street in a place she and Robert Motherwell dubbed the Sea Barn, and finally in a more secluded, woodsy space at Nelson Riding Stables.
Provincetown does appear to show up in her work.
“She was an artist who was responsive to place in subtle and nuanced ways,” says Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. She co-curated the show with Motherwell, who serves on the boards of both the museum and the foundation.
“The Bay” effloresces with blues against a quieter ground of gray, green, and natural canvas. Frankenthaler painted it in the Sea Barn.
“In ‘The Bay,’ you can see the layers of blue, like looking from her studio onto the bay,” says Motherwell.
All three studios were capacious enough for Frankenthaler’s giant canvases and physical painting process.
“She painted on the floor. She cut the painting after she painted it. She had a large roll of canvas she would keep rolling out until she was finished,” says Motherwell.
Some of the show’s 25 artworks were too big to get into the museum, and doorways were enlarged to accommodate them.
“If they could have come in not in their crates, they would have fit,” says Christine McCarthy, the museum’s executive director. “But they have to acclimate in the crates for 24 hours before they’re unpacked.”
“Abstract Climates” will take up three galleries in the museum’s older wing, which has especially high ceilings. Programming throughout July and August includes lectures by scholars and curators, include a July 7 talk, “Helen and High Water,” by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art.
“It’s rich to think about the meaning of a place like Provincetown,” says Smith. “Not to force the meaning, but to examine [the place’s] presence in whatever subtle or overt ways.”
Motherwell points to another Provincetown inspiration: American flags, Portuguese flags, and the hurricane flag flown when a storm was due. In the late 1960s, Frankenthaler’s works, such as “Summer Banner,” grew more geometric.
“To bring the work back to where she created it and see it in context,” says Motherwell, “that’s special.”
ABSTRACT CLIMATES: HELEN FRANKENTHALER IN PROVINCETOWN
At Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, July 6-Sept. 2. 508-487-1750, www.paam.org