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Handsome and well-chosen show of abstracts offers fresh look at a major 20th-century artist who works directly on the floor. ART: REVIEW

HELEN FRANKENTHALER first caught the art world's attention in 1952 by introducing the technique of pouring paint directly onto unprimed canvas laid out on the floor. This produced stain-like effects, washes of transparent and translucent color, and as often as not, a lyrical, landscape-like sense of place. These qualities set her canvases apart from those of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists who preceded her and the Color Field painters, who came later. Forty of the most important of her large, abstract paintings comprise ``Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective,'' at the Museum of Modern Art here. Selected by E.A. Carmean Jr., director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and borrowed from American and European collections, the works range from her seminal soak-stain 1952 painting ``Mountains and Sea,'' to such recent, more sumptuously painted canvases as ``For E.M.'' (1981) and ``Casanova'' (1988). Together, they make up the first full-scale museum exhibition of her work since 1969.

Frankenthaler's career is one of the major success stories of recent American art. Born in New York in 1928, she graduated from Bennington College in 1949 and by the early 1950s was acknowledged to be a leading member of the so-called second generation of the New York School. Her reputation grew dramatically after 1953, thanks in large part to ``Mountains and Seas,'' which had a significant career impact on painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

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Both had traveled from Washington, D.C., especially to see the painting. As Mr. Carmean writes in the exhibition catalogue, ``Louis and Noland were stunned by the picture; Noland recalled that it `showed us a way to think about and use color,' while Louis is remembered as proclaiming `Mountains and Sea' a `revelation.' Noland's later observation ... was that `it was as if Morris had been waiting all his life for this information.'''

Despite her influence on Color Field painting, Frankenthaler never affiliated herself with the movement. If anything, she has remained fiercely independent throughout her career. Her roots may extend back to Abstract Expressionism, but not exclusively, for she has drawn from a wide variety of both Old Master and more recent sources, and has always been able to personalize what she found, to her own creative advantage.

Her evolution has led from her early, generally huge but delicate-appearing canvases filled with interweaving lines and numerous paint-saturated areas, to the more controlled and occasionally more geometric paintings of the 1960s. From there, she moved to the broadly conceived and executed works of the 1970s that still, however, often suggest landscape sources, and then to her generally more expansive paintings of the 1980s.

Throughout her career, she has worked directly on the floor, pouring as well as brushing paint until she achieves the desired effects. Her methods vary. She may saturate the surface with an all-over tone, build up subtle layers of paint, or fashion color-shapes that may or may not allude to specific experiences or to other paintings she has seen and remembered fondly.

More recently, she has added occasional clumps or daubs of pure paint to act in counterpoint to the thinner, watercolor-like washes she employs to cover the main portions of her canvases.

``Sacrifice Decision'' (1981), for instance, consists of five high-relief ``blobs'' of hurled paint set off against soft veils of gray. And ``Grey Fireworks'' (1982), revolves around an interplay between a dove-gray background and numerous richly-hued daubs and splashes of paint.

The exhibition's dominant mood is one of thoughtful spontaneity. Even the more geometric pieces, such as ``The Human Edge'' (1967) and ``Summer Banner'' (1968), and the ``darker'' works, such as ``M'' (1977), come across as subtly celebratory statements. Increasingly over the years, her major paintings have become personal ``universes'' that need to be ``entered'' and explored before their qualities can be fully appreciated. This is especially true of ``Burnt Norton'' and ``Casanova.'' For all their surface charm, they remain profoundly ``interior'' paintings.

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In all, this is a handsome and well-chosen show, which includes a handful of quite stunning paintings. ``Snow Queen'' (1986) is my own particular favorite.

There are those critics, however - and I happen to be one of them - who have never been totally convinced of Frankenthaler's importance as an artist. This retrospective, for me at least, does nothing to advance her cause.

As always, I can enjoy a number of her paintings, but I can never really respect them - as I can, say, the works of her contemporaries Joan Mitchell and Richard Diebenkorn.

Even time - in this case a mere 30 some years - appears not to be on her side. Seen from this distance, ``Mountains and Sea'' seems more like a puffed-up and prettified version of a 1943-44 Gorky painting than anything else. And altogether too many of her 1960s canvases are rapidly becoming little more than interesting period pieces.

The exhibition continues at the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 20. After that, it travels to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Nov. 5-Jan. 7, 1990); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 8-April 22, 1990); and the Detroit Institute of Arts (June-September, 1990).

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