Reflections on Jacob’s Ladder (1957) – Helen Frankenthaler

It is somehow very difficult to provide a very general statement of what this work is. A large piece, 9’ x 6’ or so. Oil on canvas. Abstract Expressionist. How little any of that means! Created pouring diluted oil on canvas on floor. 1957. It’s at MOMA. A palette of flesh and foliage, omnivorous, if you will. Shy colors are notably absent. Lacking in water–the colors are earthy. It bubbles with circles. It explodes. It is a painting of direction.


It’s violent, this piece. Looks like taxidermied roadkill. The reds (the blood) are layered on top of something subtle and feminine. I don’t think I know enough about this work to figure out what’s going on in this mess.

The thing is a goddamn piñata of gore and flora. It’s a jurassic candy bar that became converted into a women’s health clinic. It’s vomit on an English rose garden after all you’ve gotten down is Pepto Bismol. It’s a motorcycle wreck in the middle of a municipal park. It’s the ultimate traffic sign, indicating your corporeal exit.



Consider the medical beige of the background, the subtle feminine pinks, the assault of red. It’s as if this painting was painfully expunged from Helen’s body. Apparently, IBS can be linked to psychological troubles. I see a situation where a body is in a war between an effort to soothe itself and its own uncontrollable and painful outbursts.



“Push your faults,” Diana Vreeland, she of great expansion, once said. “Make an asset of your faults.” All at once, Jacob’s Ladder pushes upward and downward, toward and receding from the viewer. It seizes ownership of any accidents and discomfort, declaring that it they too shall be incorporated and remarked upon.



That purple-ish pink is so noxious. The way Pepto Bismol, in treating nausea and diarrhea has led to a color association between that violating, unnatural pink and digestive malfunction. If a marketing firm were to use that color, it would be to sell tampons or some shit. Against the sage greens, it brings to mind sickening honey-sweet tropical flora. Against the blood red, it brings to mind the smell of fish and rust. How unnatural!



I am afraid to look at this painting. My fear is that it will exacerbate the headache. In spite of the scarlet chaos, my eye turns to the cleansing sage and forest greens. My eye seeks to calm my head, I’m fairly positive. Violence and calm can coexist and be represented to varying extents internally and externally.


Every gap is a window. Disruptions in the surrounding pattern, broken up only in an isolated island area–that’s what a window is. But when your dealing in two dimensions, who’s to say what’s in the foreground and what’s in the back? I that sense the painting does not only contain portholes–it is a porthole.



There’s all these weird little details that clutter up the empty space in the painting, like moles or birthmarks. I read my own flesh into this abstraction. Aside from the body, what? Tropical flora and birds. Drops of perspiring humidity on every surface. References to nature are accessed through the senses of the body. Nature obscures the body. The body obscures the mind.



I just noticed the glaring streak of diarrhea gold in the top right corner. It looks so much like a defamation or the stymen of a tropical flower, I suppose. These tiny paint splatters are just like little freckles. What is it about this work, or myself, that causes me to relate its abstract imagery to the body?


No matter which way I try to get at it, I feel as if I’m never actually penetrating it.



The orchid shape in the grayish blush pink looks more like ejaculate than flora. The motion of shapes makes that silly goo. I think of how flowers are like a plant’s overgrown and exposed genitals. There’s something about this painting that rides the line between sapphic and phallic.



If Pollock marks his territory by pissing with paint like a possessive dog, Helen emotes from her bowels. I don’t mean to be crass. There’s something powerful in the violence of her attempt to either control or express her inner self. I relate to that. It’s uncomfortable. It explodes. It’s a suppressed internal disaster, an effort to cork up something that you would like the world to not see, but it sprays out the sides. I think of my grandmother’s garden.



It expands, yes, but it sinks, too–like the way all that cunt juice seems to be absorbed into your skin when you fuck while the cream splurts out the top. Penetrates the canvas. The conveyance of art becomes structurally blurred with the act and imagery of art.


Seems the proverbial Jacob’s Ladder differs from the River Styx mainly in perspective. Flipped upside down, those orchid bursts look like the hairy ballsacks of a cock swirling around in bloody, pearly pussy goo. My apologies for the crassness.



There is little like alienation that can merge the external and internal realms of exploration so thoroughly.



I have thought about trying to get myself off to this painting. I am attracted to it, but it is more of a perverse fascination than a sexual arousal. I like the idea of whacking it off to abstract concepts and non-figurative imagery. I would watch a porno of someone getting off in the Rothko Chapel–in fact, I would love to see that.



I searched for “Jacob’s Ladder” on Google Images and also found out that it can refer to a series of barbell piercings along the penile shaft. It inhibits the range of motion during sex but evidently it makes for more potent orgasms, according to a comment in an online forum by a man who pierced his own dick ten times.



It does not have to explicitly reference sex to exude sex. There are, of course, the two box shapes and kind of upward motion that allude to a phallus, but it isn’t about that. This painting does not demand to be looked at, but patiently waits on the bed in lingerie.



My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates–and not nature, per say. That’s what Helen said in a video which is titled on YouTube as “Art103 Content 08 part 01 Fhase01 Helen Frankenthaler.flvAT.wmv”, so I’m not entirely sure what it’s actually from. Climate, that tone of a place, more long-lasting than seasons or weather. General tone cannot be established without a large enough sample size of passions and afflictions.



Considering the world from afar, struck by its majesty, it reads more as holy, whereas a magnification of detail reads more as sexual. Jacob’s Ladder is twisted, though–it’s abstract, on-the-cusp of figurative, from a perspective which can be read as up-close and far-away all at once.



And Jacob went out from Bursheba and went toward HELEN.

And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.



That Jacob had his visions in the desert seems fitting. The language of deserts is non-verbal. Shapes and formations that are, to the imagination, inconceivable. I think of the similarity between the words purge and purgatory. A desert is a place where heaven, hell, and earth can exist in the same place all at once.



It’s garbled brain matter, frankly — in the physical and psychological sense. The psychological relies on physical/visual cues to make sense of itself. The brain wants to know what it looks like, however irrelevant to what it does. Seems to have something to do with why it is so easy to accept physical life cycles but not so with a spiritual post-mortem redistribution of matter. If Jacob encountered heaven, it was only through the appearance of a ladder.

This is my proposed definition for the word erotic:

Upward and upward, arising, always arising. On, beyond, toward most glorious heavens, through foliage and blood. To the heavens! To that which glimmers and echoes! And what trespasses between gardens of earthly and heavenly delights but bloodshed? Violent and passionate blood–crushed berries, beet-stained, spilled wine–blood! And the blood of heaven pours forth, unbearable and devastating as love!



How can we escape the material when it is truly all we know? Where can we transcend to, aside from what is most primal? In truth, would transcendence not be more of a stripping down, a reduction. Is the orgasm fundamental, beyond, or a collective illusion?



It may swirl and reach for beyond what is fathomable. Yet it is just as unimaginable that it ends here.


Katherine Beaman is a critic, engineer, and occasional short fiction writer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia by way of the Texas Gulf Coast. She manages the website Commonplace Review where she publishes reviews and interviews concerning literature and art. Additional work by her may be found at Fashion Studies Journal, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Tragickal. Tweets at @katbemoans.

Jacob’s Ladder (1957) ©MOMA

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