The nephew of the legendary Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Frederick Iseman, has filed an amendment to his November 2023 lawsuit against the artist’s foundation and directors, including his own family members. The complaint further detailed previous accusations, alleging that the non-profit mismanaged funds in a “systematic pay-to-play” scheme, citing “extensive self-dealing” on the part of his cousin, Clifford Ross, Frankenthaler’s stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, and the foundation’s treasurer, Michael Hecht.
“Ross, Motherwell and Hecht have not responsibly stewarded the foundation but selfishly looted it,” Iseman alleged in an amended complaint filed on 31 January. “At every turn they have used—indeed, wasted—the foundation’s funds and priceless assets in ways that advanced not the foundation’s mission, but their own self-interest.”
According to Iseman, Ross has “routinely tied Frankenthaler’s work to his own”, overseeing donations of his aunt’s paintings to museums that would show and promote his art, all while obfuscating his role on the foundation’s board. Iseman also alleges that Motherwell curated exhibitions of Frankenthaler’s work “despite her complete lack of credentials”, and has accused Hecht of funneling Frankenthaler Foundation funds to other institutions of which he serves as a board member. Iseman further alleged that his family members enabled the foundation’s “incompetent” executive director, Elizabeth Smith, in her oversight of “approximately $20m of corporate waste”. Iseman claims the assets controlled by the Frankenthaler Foundation, which was established in 1984, are worth as much as $1bn.
Iseman’s lawsuit makes the case that Smith and other members of the family approved more than 170 donations from 2013 to 2022, about $10m worth of which went to venues that promoted Ross and his work. “He browbeats museums into showing his work as a condition of putting on a Frankenthaler show,” the complaint states. The complaint cites as an example of such “pay-for-play” arrangements a $250,000 donation to the Brooklyn Rail allegedly facilitated at Ross’s behest. The Rail subsequently published an interview with Ross, a poem by him and an article about him.
Iseman was removed from the foundation’s board last spring and filed his lawsuit in November. While the foundation has not addressed his new allegations in court filings, the board of directors sent a statement to Artnet News, refuting Iseman’s claims.
“Iseman’s latest complaint is as baseless as his first filing. This is the case of a former director who was not re-elected to the board due to his unprofessional and disruptive conduct. Moreover, Iseman was actively involved in all major decisions made by the board during his tenure and approved the transactions he now criticises,” the statement from the Frankenthaler Foundation’s board claims. “Iseman is also essentially accusing some of the most respected arts organisations in the country of collusion and underhanded activities… Iseman’s scattershot approach and reckless allegations about the foundation’s leadership and the nation’s premier arts institutions, which are the foundation’s partners, demonstrates his true character and why he was unsuitable to continue serving as a director of the foundation.”
Iseman’s lawsuit amendment also accuses his family members of plans to dissolve the foundation entirely, alleging a scheme to flood the market with Frankenthaler’s work and wind down operations. “Their blasé reaction to this obvious concern was puzzling in 2019, but it makes sense now,” the amended complaint states.