by Dana Delibovi
When I first saw Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Grey Fireworks, I saw it naively. I had no familiarity with Frankenthaler (1928–2011), her New York pedigree, or her devoted following. I did not know her reputation for unstudied hipness. I hadn’t even gone to see her retrospective on purpose. I just went to the Museum of Modern Art as I often did back then, in the midst of my own personal earthquake of 1989, the year it finally became clear that I could not feed my obsessions and expect to survive.
I was ignorant, cracked, and jangled that summer, when I came upon Grey Fireworks. I stood there before the painting with an equanimity I had experienced—well, never. Disquietude gave way in an instant to balance and contentment. I’ve carried that memory for a long time now. It’s tickled into consciousness every so often, when I meet a Frankenthaler fan. A fan like my dear former boss, the photographer Irwin Block, who once asked me which artists I liked. When I piped up with Frankenthaler, Irwin said. “Oh, she’s tremendous, of course!”
Why did I feel such composure at the sight of Grey Fireworks? I’ve come to think it’s because the work confronts us with opposites that are not wholly opposed—warring parties declaring peace. I’ve noticed that this is the same composure I feel when reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, a work devoted to the paradoxes of unopposed opposites and noncontradictory contradictions.
In Grey Fireworks, small bursts of electric color contrast with vague, smoky grays; yet at the same time, these colors melt and flow, borderless, into the grays. A pink focal point gives way to a turquoise focal point that gives way to a white focal point, gracefully, without strife. A heavy and somber patch floats, cloudlike, while light-weight blips fall to earth. Frankenthaler described her own work as the play of coexisting opposites. “It is,” she said, “an order familiar and new at the same time.” (Carmean 5)
The familiar is a hint of realism. The painting captures how, on a very humid Fourth of July, dense clouds of smoke are every bit as visible as the pyrotechnic display. Yet Grey Firework stakes the contrasts of smoke and fire—and maybe even the conflicts deep in the historical heart of Independence Day—and shows them to be, in truth, resolved. Out of the smoke, brilliance; out of the brilliance, smoke. Each relies on the other, interdependent rather than independent. The style has been described as a contradiction, that is, a thing and its opposite in the same place at the same time. Writing about the 1989 retrospective I visited, critic E. A. Carmean, Jr. observed that “The majority of works in this exhibition reveal a tendency in her art toward the symmetrical and the asymmetrical, a composition that suggests and denies a side-to-side equivalence.” Even the title, Grey Fireworks, is a contradiction. “It’s called that,” declared Frankenthaler, “because it is explosive. It’s not gray dismal, it’s gray celebrative.” (Johnson 18) In other words, gray that isn’t gray at all.
Opposites that aren’t opposite; contraries that don’t contradict: that’s a paradox right out of the Tao Te Ching, the elegant book of 81 philosophical poems by Lao Tzu (~6th–4thcenturies BCE). As Lao Tzu teaches, knowing this paradox isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s the way of serenity and balance—the things that infused me when I looked at Grey Fireworks, where the opposites of ashen and bright, smoky and clear, thick and ethereal remain separate but also dissolve into one.
Lao Tzu could have been describing Grey Fireworks when writing these lines in Tao 26:
Heavy is the root of light.
Still is the master of moving.
Such simultaneous opposites are never just a neat trick for Lao Tzu, but always a life lesson, as in the lines of Tao 26 that follow immediately:
So wise souls make their daily march
with the heavy baggage wagon.
Lao Tzu mollifies someone like me, who acquired some “baggage” along the way. I find relief in knowing that those burdens I carry might actually direct and lighten my movements. The burdens are ballast that lends stability, enabling me to move without falling. When one by one I become accustomed to my burdens, I have a feeling of ease, even lightness, much in the way a heavy blanket helps me rest more peacefully.
Back in 1989, walking into the gallery where I beheld Frankenthaler’s painting, my baggage wagon was loaded with addiction, bad romance, work stress, and a penchant for verbal and sometimes even physical violence. Just a little while before, I came to realize that I needed and wanted to change. At first, I wished that my baggage would magically vaporize, because it agitated me unbearably. Then, came my moment of calm with Grey Fireworks. I didn’t know it at the time, but I can see now that the painting’s united opposites triggered a feeling of acceptance and the comfort it brings. I surely understand now that my heavy burdens, once recognized and accepted, are indeed the root of lightness, because I couldn’t heal them until I accepted them. The burdens stabilize me, reminding me where I came from and where I might return if I do not take care.
Looking at the painting, I was completely wrecked and totally restored all at once. The opposites balanced perfectly—as Lao Tzu envisioned in Tao 22:
Be broken to be whole.
Twist to be straight.
Be empty to be full.
Wear out to be renewed.
Have little and gain much.
Have much and get confused.
In the years since I first encountered Grey Fireworks, I’ve also come to believe that any paradox, any observation of a contradiction where both sides seem right, is the only truth that there is. All truth is paradox, a mantra of mine, may have sprung from that day I was stopped in my tracks by Helen Frankenthaler’s painting. It soothes me to think that flinty bits of logic like the Law of Noncontradiction—it is impossible for contradictory things to both be true simultaneously—never actually obtain in the world. Electrons both are and are not in a given spin state. (Hart-Davis 132,143,144) A heap of sand or even a solid table both exist and do not, because if we take away one grain of sand or one atom at a time, we cannot ever say at exactly which point in subtraction the heap or table stops being a heap or table—a problem called the Sorites Paradox. (Unger 119–121) Even morality is paradoxical: “A person can be morally responsible only for what he does; but what he does results from a great deal that he does not do.” (Nagel 146) I grab the careening stroller and save the baby; yes, I did this, but only because, quite by accident, I was there at the same moment that the mother lost her grip, which I did not do. Everything that really matters winds up in a paradox.
We can beat our heads against paradox, or we can embrace it and work with it. Lao Tzu worked with it, Frankenthaler painted it, and with their help, I found a way to make a life with it.
Dana Delibovi is a poet, essayist, and adjunct professor of philosophy. Her essays, criticism, poetry, and translations have appeared most recently in After the Art, Teaching Philosophy, The Confluence, Witty Partition, Apple Valley Review, and Noon. She is the 2019 winner of the James Haba award for poetry.
Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way. Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, Shambala, 1998.
Carmean, E.A. Jr. Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective. Abrams/Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth/Museum of Modern Art, 1989.
Johnson, Patricia C. “Frankenthaler: Poetry on Canvas.” Houston Chronicle, 13 May 1982, sec. 4, p. 18.
Hart-Davis, Adam. Schrödinger’s Cat: Groundbreaking Experiments in Physics. Metro Books, 2015.
Unger, Peter. “There Are No Ordinary Things.” Synthese, vol. 41, no. 2, 1979, pp. 117-154.
Nagel, Thomas. Moral Luck. II—T. Nagel. Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume, vol. 50, no. 1, 1976, pp. 137-151.