Editorial: “Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster Transforms the Vienna Opera with an Homage to Helen Frankenthaler”

French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster unveiled a new large-scale artwork this week at the Vienna State Opera for the opening of the 2015/2016 season as part of a series of annual commissions from Vienna’s museum in progress, curated by jury-members Daniel Birnbaum and Hans- Ulrich Obrist.

The ‘Safety Curtain’ project was initiated by the public art organization in the hopes of revitalizing the opera house, which is one of the most active in Europe. The first work commissioned to launch the project in 1998 was made by artist Kara Walker. Other participating artists have included a range of established figures such as Maria Lassnig, Rosemarie Trockel, Cy Twombly, and Cerith Wyn Evans. Mounted to the theater safety curtain at the foot of the stage, the consistent churn of contemporary works is meant to activate the space with fresh ideas, creating a stark contrast with the surrounding Neo-Renaissance architecture built in 1869.

“The goal is to find places to put contemporary art where people don’t expect it,” says museum in progress Managing Director Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl, noting the institution’s strong focus on interventions in media and public spaces such as billboards, magazines or town squares. “The Safety Curtain is a project between tradition and innovation. Artists are chosen whose work responds to music, the architecture of the opera house, or Stage Theater. The architecture really works like a frame, it’s amazing.”

Gonzalez-Foerster’s work titled Helen & Gordon (2015) is a photographic recreation of the famous portrait of influential abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, shot by Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks in 1957. The image, depicting the youthful Frankenthaler in the studio, surrounded by her large, gestural and colorful canvases, was first published in an article titled “Women Artists in Ascendance”, profiling her along with fellow painters Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Nell Blaine, and Jane Wilson.

Helen Frankenthaler, 'Mountains and Sea,' 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. On extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The works in Frankenthaler’s studio portrait are signature examples of the “stain” painting technique she devised, using thinned-down liquefied oils to stain on raw canvas. As a woman working in the arts, Frankenthaler’s contributions to art history were often overlooked and until recently have been relatively unknown. One of the paintings on view in the portrait, in particular, hanging on the left, is “Mountains and Sea” (1952), which is attributed as having inspired the Color Field painting movement.

After first seeing the original image online, Gonzalez-Foerster developed a fascination for the photograph of Frankenthaler. “Although I am not a painter, I feel a strong attraction to this very physical and spatial way of painting which fills the room,” Gonzalez-Foerster told Artsy. “I find it extremely clever that her paintings look like her thoughts. She is both immersed in and at the origin of new art of the 20th century that was so rich in experimentation.”


Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Helen & Gordon, 2015. Photo by Andreas Scheiblecker, courtesy of museum in progress (www.mip.at).

When she was commissioned for Safety Curtainfor the work, Gonzalez-Foerster was immediately struck with the idea of restaging the image of Frankenthaler. To create the piece, she placed herself in the role of the painter. “Since 2013 I have staged ‘apparitions’ of fictional or real characters appearing in different contexts, but not necessarily on stage,” explains the artist. “Among these are Edgar Allan Poe, Ludwig II, Emily Brontëé, Lola Montez, La Casati, and many others, each with different and intense relationships to art, literature, and self-narrative. I enter these characters like rooms to explore their relation to art from the inside, and to present a moment in which practice and presence are one.”

In the process of realizing Gonzalez-Foerster’s idea, the museum in progress contacted the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation to notify them of the project and request permission. Enthralled by the concept, which aligns with their own mission of supporting the arts, the foundation jumped on board to cooperatively sponsor the piece. As Elizabeth Smith, Executive Director of the foundation describes, “Frankenthaler was one of the leading artists of her era. The other day, someone even described her as the Grande Dame of American Modernism. Her work looks very fresh, particularly with the resurgence of interest in abstract painting, like a kind of antecedent for current practices. After her death in 2011, a lot of new scholarship surfaced about her work. People are questioning the position of women artists in the art world and thinking of what gains still need to be made. Did Helen have the recognition she deserved? How can we look at her now in a different way than we did before?”


Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Helen & Gordon, 2015. Photo by Andreas Scheiblecker, courtesy of museum in progress (www.mip.at).

Numerous exhibitions surveying Frankenthaler’s work have been mounted in recent years at galleries like Gagosian and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This past February, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University introduced “Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler,” a historical group show curated by Katy Siegel pointing to the influences Frankenthaler’s work has had on subsequent movements and contemporary practices. The accompanying publication has already been making waves among younger generations of artists, including Gonzalez-Foerster. “There is potential for a great operatic work if you think about her, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hilma af Klint and their relations to abstraction, color and art,” she adds. “It’s only the beginning.”

arielle bier