Helen Frankenthaler. Out side windows (via Alberti)


Helen Frankenthaler, “Scene with Blue 6”, 1961, oil on canvas, 64 x 80 in., © Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virgnina, USA

Label text (Chrysler Museum): 

Highly sensitive to innovation and process, Chrysler recognized Helen Frankenthaler as a leading figure in the male-dominated New York art world. Paint and canvas merge in this work to create a lively sense of movement and flow. Helen Frankenthaler invented the “soak-stain” technique in 1953, when she allowed diluted oil paints to saturate her raw canvas. She adapted the process here by adding a few dynamic lines and spatters. The resulting image reads almost as a window opening onto a scene of strange trees, glowing orbs, and colorful numbers.

Here then is Frankenthaler taking the painting as a window, in the manner of Leon Alberti’s saying — aperta finestra (De Pictura, Liber I), admittedly materializing the metaphor? If it’s a “real” window, as we read it, and the artist paints “through it” — beyond it — then we can let ourselves off the hook in search of a unique interpretation, or rather, we’ll be spoilt for choice. And here we go! Look at the right-hand side. Doesn’t it look like a Basquiat? Do you see it? No ? Here:

I suppose now you’re visualizing a head (big eyes, nose, etc.), right? So, the painting’s title, now, is “Man at the Window”. Another interpretation: in the frame itself, it’s a (mysterious) number 6, rocks, sea, sun, grand canyon landscape — West Rim? The same year, we find this painting:

Helen Frankenthaler, “Blue Form in a Scene”, 1961, oil on canvas, 94 7/8 × 92 9/16in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

This one’s even bigger! Those are big windows. Because that’s what it’s all about, I thought. Windows, yes, but systematically overflowing. What do windows overflow with? Landscapes! You’re thinking — perhaps — where’s the window? Here :

You see this pseudo-square with blue lines, that’s the window (admittedly crudely executed, but we’ve got the idea and that’s enough). My hypothesis (in all fictionality) is that Frankenthaler has taken up Alberti’s metaphor of the window, but included it materially, graphically, in the canvas.


First I trace as large a quadrangle as I wish, with right angles, on the surface to be painted; in this place, it certainly functions for me as an open window through which the historia is observed, and there I determine how big I want men in the painting to be… (Alberti).

The right-angled quadrilateral is fictitious. His rectangle is a frame within the “given” frame of the painting, to which Leon adds a new frame to put himself at work, more at ease. It’s important to make this clear. But then another question arises: Even if large, doesn’t this quadrilateral actually restrict the space of the painting? And what if, like Helen, we were to widen the window to other truths, other adjacent stories, that would (naturally) overflow? Frankenthaler, apparently, has made up her mind. Don’t hold it against Leon (Battista Alberti), he was, as we say in French, quite « obnubilé » (from the Latin obnubilare, “to cover with a cloud”) with mathematics, hence the sometimes too Code of law style of De Pictura. But, after amendment, we can discuss. I continue to assume that Frankenthaler is gently teasing Alberti by proposing what I would then call the open-ended enlargement of the window.

Ultimately, what does it mean for Helen to widen the window? It means realizing that reality implodes, that it is, by nature, explosible; that the world is always larger than the frame, in fact, everything never fits into the frame, and consequently, it overflows, as below:

Helen Frankenthaler, “Beach Scene”, 1961, oil and crayon on canvas, 122 1/8 x 93 5/8 in.

Ref/ Leon Battista Alberti: On Painting. A new translation and critical edition, Rocco Sinisgalli, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Léon Mychkine 

writer, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher, art critic, member of AICA-France