Helen Frankenthaler’s nephew looted art foundation: suit

The nephew of one of America’s greatest female artists is being accused by his own family of turning her foundation into a $10 million “pay-to-display” scheme to get his own “middlebrow” art exhibited at top venues.

Clifford Ross, a nephew of the late abstract-expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler, is accused in new court documents filed Wednesday of funneling millions from her $1 billion foundation to prestigious institutions including Yale, the New York Public Library and New York University to boost his own work, including poetry which got handed to subway straphangers.

The detailed claims are the latest twist in a bitter family feud first revealed by The Post in November, with rival members of Frankenthaler’s family accusing each other of “grabstract expressionism” in a case at New York Supreme Court.

In a new filing, Frederick Iseman, another of Frankenthaler’s nephews, claims that Ross “looted” her foundation, of which he is president, along with the artist’s step-daughter, Lise Motherwell, and Michael Hecht, the foundation’s director and accountant — all to boost Ross’s own “unremarkable” career.

Iseman accuses them of making six-figure donations totaling $10 million to venues which then showed Ross’s work, had him do talks, or boosted his profile in other ways including publishing his books.

Graphic from the complaint breaks down where Grant money went and the ways in which Clifford Ross is alleged to have benefited. SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Clifford Ross is being accused of turning his aunt’s foundation into a “pay-to-display” scheme. Getty Images

Ross “browbeats museums into showing his work as a condition of putting on a Frankenthaler show,” the papers allege.

There is no suggestion in the suit that the institutions it names were involved in a quid pro quo with Ross.

In a statement, the board of directors of the Foundation said the claims were “meritless and spiteful” and said: “Mr. Iseman’s latest complaint is as baseless as his first filing.

“Apparently simply filing a meritless and spiteful lawsuit was not enough, and he is now resorting to further attacks on the three directors, the foundation’s executive director and its counsel.”

Attorneys for the plaintiff and named defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

Frederick Iseman claims that his cousin, Clifford Ross, along with others, “looted” their aunt’s foundation. Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

In the “pay to display” scheme outlined in court documents Iseman alleges the Foundation’s grants went to institutions such as NYU, which got $675,000 between 2015 to 2022, and which then showed Ross’s works at the NYU Abu Dhabi Gallery in the United Arab Emirates in 2023.

“Ross obtained an exhibition there from February to June 2023. The exhibition followed significant donations from the Foundation to NYU,” the papers claim.

Other examples cited include $500,000 donated to the New York Public Library, from 2020 to 2021. Ross then hosted a discussion there about his art work, Iseman alleges.

He also “sponsored” an exhibition there, devoted to Lou Reed, “which contained Ross’s work,” Iseman claims.

Helen Frankenthaler launched her foundation while she was still alive. The artist hoped that it would safeguard her legacy. Getty Images

Yale got $890,000 in grants, according to the suit, then Ross placed his own works there — even though they were not “requested or desired.”

Ross is also accused of using “Foundation assets to buy recognition even outside the art world,” with $150,000 of grants to independent cinema Film Forum in Greenwich Village between 2017 and 2022 accompanied by him featuring in a documentary it screened in 2020.

And, Iseman alleges, Ross even engineered a $250,000 donation to an art publication called the Brooklyn Rail, which handed out a broadsheet art newspaper to commuters on the L train.

In return, Iseman claims, it published an interview with Ross, an article by him and one of his poems.

The lawsuit says “the Brooklyn Rail was not what Frankenthaler had in mind” when she bequeathed her own art, her large collection of other artists and her personal investments into the trust of the Foundation, starting in 1984.

Helen Frankenthaler with two of her prized paintings. Getty Images

The suit names a series of other institutions which it says got donations in the “pay-to-display” scheme, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology; The American Academic in Rome; Guild Hall in East Hampton, New York; and the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, none of which are accused of wrongdoing.

She died in 2011, aged 83, with the Foundation instructed to use its assets to keep her work “alive,” the suit claims.

Frankenthaler was a groundbreaking artist in her own right, originally influenced by Jackson Pollock, whose work is featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The Foundation’s collection of her work is worth $250 million, with the other $750 million made up of other artists’ works and investments.

Written by SaleemBaloch

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