The nephew of the groundbreaking artist Helen Frankenthaler is suing his relatives, claiming in a scathing lawsuit that they are exploiting Frankenthaler’s foundation—and her legacy—for their own personal gain.
The nephew, private equity firm founder Frederick Iseman, claims to have had a “uniquely close relationship” with his late aunt, a major American abstract expressionist painter. Iseman previously served on the board of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation alongside another of Frankenhaler’s nephew’s, Clifford Ross, her stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, and director Michael Hecht.
Iseman claims Frankenthaler intended the Foundation to arrange for major showings of her art at prestigious institutions and provide grants to highly esteemed artists and critics. Instead, he claims, his fellow board members used their access to Frankenthaler’s work to boost their own profiles—and even suggested winding down the foundation so they could sell off her art.
When Iseman protested, he claims, his family members unceremoniously voted him off the board.
“Rather than the school of “abstract expressionism” of which Frankenthaler was one of the most prominent members, Defendants here are engaging in a kind of ‘grabstract expressionism’ that is effectively destroying Frankenthaler’s legacy,” says the complaint, filed by New York City power lawyer Roberta Kaplan.
In a statement, the board of directors said Iseman served on the board for over two decades and was “party to 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,” the board said in an email to The Daily Beast. “Based on these criteria, Mr. Iseman’s re-election to the Board was not supported this past May. It is unfortunate that Mr. Iseman has resorted to litigation tactics and baseless allegations as a result.”
Motherwell and an attorney for Hecht declined to comment. Ross did not respond to a call seeking comment.
Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, is a major figure in the American postwar abstract impressionist movement, and has—according to the Gagosian— “long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century.” Her work has been shown in the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and is said to have been an inspiration for painters such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.
Iseman, the chairman and CEO of CI Capital Partners, says his aunt hand-selected him to serve on the board of her foundation. According to Iseman, Frankenthaler intended for the foundation to preserve and advance her legacy, arranging for showings of her work at “major centers of art” alongside “other artists of major importance.” Unfortunately, he claims, his family is more interested in using her work to “advance their own personal interests and careers … in betrayal of their commitment to safeguard, protect, and promote Frankenthaler’s legacy.”
The suit accuses Frankenthaler’s other nephew, Ross, of using Foundation grants to goad museums into displaying his own “unremarkable” art. According to the complaint, the foundation made $1.8 million in grants or donations to organizations and institutions “closely associated with Ross” between 2013 and 2021, for “no apparent reason other than their connection to Ross.” For example, the suit claims the foundation donated $50,000 to the tiny Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York after it displayed some of Ross’ artwork.
“Despite the serious commitment he made to Frankenthaler to protect and cultivate her legacy, Ross has fallen victim to his own hubris, repeatedly prioritizing his own, ‘middlebrow’ career over that of his aunt’s,” the complaint states.
Iseman accuses Frankenthaler’s step-daughter, Motherwell, of similar self-dealing, claiming she devoted significant foundation time and resources to displaying her stepmother’s art at a small, regional art museum in Provincetown, of which she is the director. The board “expressed concern that a deluge of small exhibitions such [this] show could interfere with the prospect of a larger retrospective of Frankenthaler’s work at a major museum,” the complaint says, but Motherwell plowed ahead anyway, even co-authoring a book about the exhibition.
The exhibition, the complaint claims, “went almost entirely unnoticed in the wider art world.”
In 2019, Iseman claims, his family members put forward a plan to wind down the foundation and sell off or donate all of her key works by 2030—a collection that, along with Frankenthaler’s personal collection of other artists’ work and the foundation’s investments, Iseman claims is worth nearly $1 billion. Iseman says he argued that the proposal “contradicted Frankenthaler’s express wishes and the Foundation’s publicly stated mission of promoting and enshrining her legacy.”
The nephew claims he convinced his family to hold off on the plan temporarily, but that they again raised the foundation’s annual meeting in April 2023. When Iseman opposed the idea, he says, his fellow board members began “secretly schem[ing]” to remove him from the board. They scheduled a second annual meeting for a month later, during which they voted to eject him—in violation of the Foundation’s bylaws and New York law, he claims.
Iseman is suing his family members and the foundation’s director, Michael Hecht, for improper removal without cause and breach of fiduciary duty to the foundation, and is seeking their removal from the board and his reinstatement. He is also asking the board members to produce the Foundation’s financial records and provide an accounting of all of the art in the Foundation’s inventory, to ensure none of it is sold during the course of the suit.
In the complaint, Iseman claims he is bringing the suit “out of loyalty to his aunt and because of his promise to her when she was alive to safeguard her legacy.” Not only will the board members’ actions tarnish Frankenthaler’s legacy, the complaint states, but shuttering her foundation will “substantially deprive future generations of the opportunity to see and appreciate the work of one of the great American women artists.”