Helen Frankenthaler’s Nephew Is Suing the Artist’s Foundation for Allegedly ‘Destroying’ Her Legacy
Frederick Iseman is accusing the foundation's directors of mismanagement and self-enrichment.
The nephew of the late Helen Frankenthaler, Frederick Iseman, is suing the artist’s foundation and its directors—who include his cousin Clifford Ross and Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell—accusing the organization of mismanaging the famed Abstract Expressionist painter’s legacy.
Iseman is seeking to reclaim his place on the foundation board, to remove the other directors, and to ensure that the foundation does not follow through on proposed plans to disband and sell off its collection—which he claims would be in direct contravention of Frankenthaler’s wishes.
The artist established the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation in 1984. Iseman, who is 71, served on the board for over two decades, and was president from Frankethaler’s death in 2011 until May 2023. He claims he was illegally ousted from the role because of his objection to the other board members’ activities.
His legal complaint, filed by the firm Kaplan, Hecker, and Fink in the Supreme Court of the State of New York yesterday, accuses the remaining of board members—all of whom have served since the organization’s founding—of breaching their fiduciary duty to the foundation.
It states that Ross, Motherwell, and the foundation’s third director, Michael Hecht, are “exploiting the foundation for their own individual, personal interests” rather than promoting Frankenthaler and her work, and “engaging in a kind of ‘grabstract expressionism’ that is effectively destroying Frankenthaler’s legacy.”
The complaint claimed that the board has never grown in size “because the introduction of any new board members would risk uncovering the defendants’ neglect and malfeasance… and disrupt the tacit arrangement among the director defendants to support each other in their self-dealing ventures with respect to the foundation.”
The foundation was quick to rebut these allegations in an emailed statement, asserting that Iseman “was actively involved in all major decisions made by the board during his tenure.”
“Board elections occur on an annual basis and take into consideration a director’s comportment and their contributions in advancing the foundation’s mission and programs. Based on these criteria, Mr. Iseman’s re-election to the board was not supported this past May,” the board said. “It is unfortunate that Mr. Iseman has resorted to baseless allegations and litigation tactics as a result.”
Among those allegations is the claim that Ross, a photographer and multimedia artist, also aged 71, used his position at the foundation to promote his own career. That allegedly includes “pay-to-play transactions,” in which some of the recipients of $1.8 million in foundation grants, including Guild Hall in East Hampton and the Brooklyn Rail, also exhibited, acquired, or wrote about his work.
Ross “may have experienced a measure of success at some point in his career… [but] those days have long since passed,” the complaint contended, mocking his “struggling artistic career.”
Then there is 87-year-old Hecht, who in addition to his role on the foundation board has also provided the organization with accounting services through his companies Hecht and Company P.C. and Citrin Cooperman. The complaint cites annual payments to both companies of roughly $50,000 to $80,000 between 2016 and 2021.
Motherwell, age 68, meanwhile, curated a Frankenthaler exhibition at and donated five of the artist’s work to Massachusetts’s Provincetown Art Association and Museum—a small regional museum where she has been on the board for nearly 20 years. The complaint argued that this was a poor use of the foundation’s resources when Frankenthaler’s express wishes were to focus efforts on securing exhibitions in major art centers.
Iseman believes that the foundation has failed in its mission to promote Frankenthaler’s work, comparing it unfavorably to the Joan Mitchell Foundation.
“Frankenthaler pieces have been featured in 65 shows between 2015 and 2023, while Mitchell’s have been featured in 127 shows during the same period, including 13 solo shows at prestigious institutions, three retrospectives, and a ‘Monet-Mitchell’ show in both Paris and St. Louis,” the complaint noted.
“The only real Frankenthaler shows have been arranged by Gagosian without any material support from the foundation. Instead, the foundation has shown her work at minor, regional museums, with little to no fanfare,” the complaint added, noting that there is only one substantial 2024 exhibition currently scheduled, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.
The foundation has reportedly failed to engage any major museums to host a touring exhibition in celebration of the upcoming centennial of Frankenthaler’s birth in 1928, with an important Midwestern museum reportedly recently changing its mind about organizing the show.
The complaint argued that the foundation’s subpar work is part of the reason that Frankenthaler’s market has also lagged behind that of Mitchell, with record of just $7.8 million compared to $16.6 million for that of her contemporary.
But Iseman’s biggest concern is that the directors have since 2019 been considering closing the foundation, which owns 3,000 pieces by the artist, by “donating or selling all key works by Frankenthaler by 2030, with an eye to fully liquidating the foundation’s assets and winding down the foundation by 2034.”
Iseman was forced out of his role at the foundation after attempting to stop what he saw as mismanagement and self-enrichment on the part of the other directors, and his opposition to closing the foundation, according to the complaint. Because he was removed at a meeting in May, and the foundation’s annual meeting allegedly took place in April, the lawsuit argued that he should be reinstated to his post.
The complaint also seeks the dismissal of Ross, Motherwell, and Hecht, and compensation to the foundation for their allegedly improper actions.
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