Bitter Family Feud Revealed in Lawsuit Against the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Accuses Board of ‘Grabstract Expressionism’

A lawsuit filed yesterday in New York State’s Supreme Court reveals blistering criticisms against the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s board member by one of their own. 

Fredrick Iseman, Frankenthaler’s nephew who for 20 years was sat on the Foundation’s board with Clifford Ross, also the artist’s nephew, her stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, and board’s director Michael Hecht, claims his family members are taking advantage of the artist’s legacy in what was colorfully described as “grabstract expressionism” that could effectively destroy Frankenthaler’s legacy. 

Iseman, who claims to have been hand-picked by Frankenthaler to preserve her legacy by helping organize exhibitions of her work at major institutions alongside” other artists of major importance,” says his family members exploit the Foundation “to advance their own personal interests and careers” which he sees as a “betrayal of their commitment to safeguard, protect, and promote Frankenthaler’s legacy.”

The slights against Frankenthaler’s name listed in the suit range from the tactless to the potentially devastating. Ross, who is an artist himself, is accused of engaging in shady “pay-to-play” deals, “trading the Foundation’s grant-giving capacity in exchange for exhibitions of his own otherwise unremarkable artwork and to generate publicity for his own career.” Motherwell, the suit says, used her position on the board to curate Frankenthaler exhibitions in small town museums that lack the prestige befitting an artist of Frankenthaler’s caliber “despite her complete lack of appropriate credentials.”

Hecht, too, is guilty of tarnishing Frankenthaler’s legacy, according to the suit, which says the director enriches himself by regularly employing his own accounting firms for Foundation business and facilitating donations from the Foundation to “unrelated institutions where he sits on the board.”

The most damning accusation claims that Motherwell, Ross, and Hecht have conspired to close the Foundation and “and cash out its assets as soon as they can, presumably as part of a plan to cover their own tracks.” Iseman says that in 2019 the board members submitted a plan to shutter the Foundation and liquidate or donate the most important works in the collection by 2030, a move that would expressly contradict Frankenthaler’s wishes for the Foundation.

Iseman says he was able to delay the plan at first, but during the Foundations annual meeting in April 2023 the idea resurfaced. Iseman again fought against the idea and, at a dubious second “annual meeting” the following month, he was pushed out of the board “leaving [Ross, Motherwell, and Hecht] alone as the three directors of the Foundation, still committed to completely shutting down the Foundation in the near future.

The suit aims to remove Ross, Motherwell, and Hecht from the board, reinstate Iseman, who says his dismissal was in violating of both the Foundation’s bylaws and New York State law. Iseman also wants the boards financial records released to show if and how the Foundation’s funds were mishandled by the board and a full inventory of the Foundation’s collection to make sure nothing is sold while the suit progresses. Iseman, who founded and is the chief executive of the private equity firm CI Capital Partners, says he had a “uniquely close” relationship with his aunt and “brings this case out of loyalty to his aunt and because of his promise to her when she was alive to safeguard her legacy.”

In a statement sent to ARTnews the Foundation called Iseman’s allegations “baseless.” Iseman, they say, served as president of the board from 2011 through May 2023 and was “actively involved in all major decisions made by the board during his tenure. “Mr. Iseman’s re-election to the Board was not supported this past May.  It is unfortunate that Mr. Iseman has resorted to baseless allegations and litigation tactics as a result,” the Foundation said.