It’s a family feud in the art world, as a nephew of legendary artist Helen Frankenthaler accuses his relatives of “abstract expressionism” in a new lawsuit that also criticizes a cousin’s work as “unremarkable.”
The directors of a billion-dollar foundation intended to promote the artist’s work are engaging in “pay-for-play” transactions to boost their own work and “destroy” the abstract expressionist’s legacy as one of the most important American painters of the last century, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the New York State Supreme Court.
The dispute finds Frankenthaler’s nephew, Frederick Iseman, a ousted board member of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Inc., suing his artist cousin Clifford Ross, as well as Lise Motherwell, who is the late painter’s stepdaughter.
They are both on the board.
“They have been acting as if they were members of a small private clique, using their roles as directors of the foundation’s board of directors to promote their own careers and prestige, not to mention trading foundation assets for their personal benefit,” he said. the court. the documents say.
In a clever twist, the lawsuit accuses the plaintiffs of “engaging in a kind of ‘abstract expressionism’ that is effectively destroying Frankenthaler’s legacy.”
Helen Frankenthaler created her foundation in 1984 to promote her work in leading institutions around the world. fake images
It also claims that Iseman, 71, was removed from the board by other members who “secretly conspired” to get rid of him earlier this year.
Michael Hecht, a New York-based accountant and board member, is listed as a defendant but is not a family member.
A representative for the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation had no comment.
The lawsuit refers to Ross’s “struggled artistic career” and notes that while he “may have experienced some success at some point in his career…those days are long gone.”
Financier Frederick Iseman, Frankenthaler’s nephew, was removed from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation board of directors earlier this year. He is now suing other board members, including her cousin. Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
The lawsuit doesn’t stop at its portrait of Ross, 71, who is the board’s president.
It alleges that the professional artist, and son of Frankenthaler’s middle sister, Gloria, engaged in “pay-to-play” transactions for his own benefit and criticizes his talent.
Ross allegedly exchanged $1.8 million in foundation grants between 2013 and 2021 in exchange for exhibitions of his “own otherwise unremarkable artwork and to generate publicity for his own career,” court documents say.
The lawsuit accuses Ross of “dealing on his own account” and using the foundation’s influence and funds to promote his own work, providing him with “a platform from which he cannot promote himself,” the court filing says. He alleges that he used foundation funds to make donations to small nonprofit magazines, such as Bomb and Brooklyn Rail, in exchange for promoting his work in his articles.
Helen Frankenthaler was considered a pioneer among abstract expressionist painters in New York City in the 1950s. AFP via Getty Images
In 2021, the foundation donated $75,000 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where Frankenthaler’s seminal painting, “Mountains and Seas,” is on long-term loan.
A year later, Ross offered to donate one of his own works to the gallery for its permanent collection, which the gallery accepted but did not put on public view.
Once the gift was accepted, the legal documents say, he promoted himself further: He ordered the foundation to update his biography on its website to acknowledge that his work was in the National Gallery’s collection, according to the legal documents.
According to the lawsuit, once Ross took over as president to replace Iseman, he “even had the nerve” to “immediately” update his own Wikipedia page to reflect it, under the pseudonym Brooklynartlover.
Painter Helen Frankenthaler received the National Endowment for the Arts medal from former President George W. Bush in 2002.AP
For his part, Hecht hired two of his own accounting firms to work for the foundation, posing a conflict of interest for board members, the lawsuit says.
“Hecht never requested an outside audit of the foundation’s finances, despite the foundation’s high net worth,” the lawsuit says.
He also used the foundation’s money to donate to institutions where he serves as a board member, including, the lawsuit alleges, $5 million to the liberal arts college Bennington College in Vermont, where Frankenthaler went to college. school and where Hecht is an administrator.
Motherwell, 68, who has been president of the board of directors of the Provincetown Association of Arts and Museum (PAAM) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, since 2017, “a position she obtained due to her last name, family connections and her position in the foundation’s board of directors” – used his influence as a board member to curate a 2018 exhibition of Frankenthaler’s works at the small museum, despite having no curatorial experience, the lawsuit says.
Artist Clifford Ross, seen here with Martha Stewart, is among the Frankenthaler family members named as defendants in the lawsuit. Patrick McMullan via Getty Images
He adds that he also convinced the foundation’s board of directors to donate five Frankenthaler watercolors worth $1.4 million to the museum.
“The donation enhanced her reputation and consolidated the debt PAAM owed her,” the lawsuit says, adding that Motherwell also asked the foundation to pay her $180 an hour for her work on the board.
Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, founded his eponymous foundation in 1984 to safeguard his legacy and promote his work around the world, according to the nonprofit organization’s mission statement.
According to court documents, she personally appointed Iseman, a philanthropist and founder of private equity firm CI Capital Partners, to the board of directors.
Lise Motherwell is the president of the Provincetown Museum and Art Association and stepdaughter of Helen Frankenthaler. Her lawsuit accuses her of getting the job because of her family connections. Florida International University
Iseman had “an exceptionally close relationship” with his aunt “and served on the board with no financial interest” until his termination, according to the lawsuit.
Born in 1928, Frankenthaler’s artistic genius was noticed at an early age when, at age nine, she won honorable mention in a drawing contest sponsored by Saks Fifth Avenue.
After graduating from Bennington, she returned to New York and began her artistic career influenced by contemporary artist Jackson Pollock, among others.
She married the artist Robert Motherwell in 1958, but divorced him in 1971.
The foundation is the primary beneficiary of Frankenthaler’s work, according to his 2004 will, according to court documents.
Some of the artist’s works, which have sold for millions of dollars and are displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and other prominent venues around the world, will be auctioned this week by Christie’s in New York.
These works are not property of the foundation, according to the auction house’s catalogue, which has estimated estimates of up to one million dollars.