Helen Frankenthaler LRB December 16, 2021
Helen Frankenthaler is best known for her large-scale, vivid “smear” paintings, which initiated the color field works of the so-called Abstract Expressionists of the second generation. She claimed that her visit to Jackson Pollock’s exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950 changed her sense of what could be done with color, space, line and movement – and had it convinced of the value of allusivity in relation to narration. “It was as if I suddenly went to a foreign country and didn’t know the language, but had read enough, had a passionate interest and was looking forward to living there,” she declared. “I wanted to live in this country; I had to live there and master the language. Two years later, at 23, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea (1952), its watery veils of green, blue, pink, ocher and gray spread irregularly over the surface in unusual shapes. It was the first work of his new style and it was produced by a new technique. She pours oil paint diluted with turpentine directly onto an unprimed canvas lying on the floor, so that the colors bleed and permeate the weaving, the image blending into its medium.
One weekend in 1953, when Frankenthaler was out of town, her then-boyfriend Clement Greenberg brought painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to his studio to see Mountains and Sea. Louis described it as “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible,” and later said he and Noland immediately began to “color” in their own work. (Greenberg continued to champion them as leading color field painters, never mentioning Frankenthaler; his policy, he said, with former lovers.) Frankenthaler continued to paint in this mode for over six decades, and for various purposes: spare works with vast expanses of untouched canvas, vivid primary colors twisting in their centers; arcs and pale pastel lines (“strings and lassos” as she called them) gently permeating the canvas, sometimes suggesting a landscape or a figure; waves full of rich colors – waves, clouds, skies, seas – covering the canvas edge to edge. Fans of Frankenthaler’s paintings who missed the exhibition of his work at the Gagosian Gallery this summer should look for the five paintings on display at Tate Modern until the end of the year. But perhaps the most important is Radical beauty, the exhibition of his woodcuts at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (until April 18). This is the first time that Frankenthaler’s works on paper have been exhibited in Britain, and they bear witness to his continuous technical innovation and formal invention.
“A really good picture looks like it happened right away,” Frankenthaler said. “It’s an immediate picture. For my own work, when an image looks labored and overloaded… there is something in it that has nothing to do with beautiful art to me. ‘ His work is distinguished by its spontaneity, by large, daring, courageous gestures. Woodcut, on the other hand, is the most rigid medium and requires a team of collaborators. It cannot be completed in the privacy of the studio.
The idea to experiment with another medium came from his friends Larry Rivers and Grace Hartigan. In the early 1960s, they suggested that she visit Universal Limited Art Editions, a studio in New York City run by print publisher Tatyana Grosman. Grosman was known for her work on artists’ books and print editions, and in particular for helping them translate their images from one form to another. Grosman believed that woodcut provided unique possibilities for Frankenthaler’s use of color and abstraction and encouraged her to experiment with a jigsaw, cutting individual blocks into shapes that she could then arrange into a final composition. His first impression was East and beyond (1973), made from eight blocks of Lauan mahogany plywood. It is dominated by a broad orange band flanked by red bands that descend in a purple U-shape, with green, yellow and blue highlights. The texture created by the coarse vertical grain of the wood was enhanced by Frankenthaler’s method of hollowing out the blocks to produce stark white lines and curves in the otherwise solid colors. After her death in 2011, art critic Grace Glueck wrote that East and beyond ‘became contemporary printmaking in the 1970s in which the coloring of Mrs. Frankenthaler’s painting Mountains and Sea had been in the development of color field painting twenty years earlier ”.
In 1976, she began working with the master engraver Kenneth Tyler, who had just left Los Angeles to set up a workshop in New York. Tyler was known to combine traditional printing techniques with newer technologies, sometimes of his own invention. He designed new types of paper, developed hydraulic lithographic presses, and became an expert in printing on complex mixed media. It was with Tyler that Frankenthaler created the strange pictorial impression Mulberry essence (1977). Although she still used the jigsaw to cut and join shapes, the print is filled with slender, curvy shapes. It was printed from four blocks, one of oak, birch, walnut and lauan, on handmade paper, one of which continues under the print like a scroll. The layers of color – long vertical washes – are as compositional important as the more precise shapes that float in them. Subtle textures emerge from the different grains of each wood.
Frankenthaler described the work with Tyler as a kind of magic and the “problems” of the puzzle as a kind of “romance”. “This medium of woodcut, this workshop, the tools, the people, all forced and suggested, helping the whole dialectic between the artist and the woodcut.” Mulberry essence required 65 different tests to arrive at the final work. Six are on display in Dulwich, each a different peregrination of the image: First proof of work is a faint print covered with scribbles and spots of pastel, pencil, mulberry juice; Progressive proof 1 is composed of plain and flattened washes in yellow; Twenty test proof turned into jagged streaks of bright color; Test proof two was knocked down. Proof of work five is heavily annotated, showing how Frankenthaler questioned his images. In the left corner are notes to the technicians of the workshop: “a) as here streaks of wood (ditto on the other side); b) at the top like a vivacity where mulberry meets ocher; c) the ocher border must remain. Do not let the mulberry touch the edge of the paper. And on the right: ‘Ps. I like the difference in shade in the print here between the two left + right sides compared to w. 2 others which appear more symmetrical + “banned” in “regular” printing. So try – but NOT pliz schmaltz! Also likes woodwork. Thank you.’
Subsequent prints such as Cameo (1980) and Free fall (1993) push the experiments further. In Cameo, the pink paper appears through spots and scratches where Frankenthaler subjected the wood to his “guzzing” technique, afflicting the blocks with unusual tools: an electric sanding wheel, a cheese grater, dental tools. The mauve is delicate, as in the half-light. For Free fall, a monumental woodcut in twelve blocks (measuring almost two by one and a half meters), Frankenthaler saturated the paper with deep blues by applying tint paste with brushes, combs and a juice bulb. The colors were mapped to match the registration of the blocks, which were applied with a wet hydraulic press. This intensity of the color creates a kind of mirage: the color seems to flow, hover, pour into the center of the work, its moving depths and its layers never quite settling.
Like his paintings, Frankenthaler’s woodcuts have suggestive titles. “Do you want some clues? She asked a journalist one day. “There is no clue. ” Madame Papillon, a huge triptych nearly seven feet wide, was inspired by a Japanese screen: at its center is a thick white line above a line of pink and oblong of pale greens and blues, and dark which descend in a swirl of rainbow hues. From this central shape, colored licks and curls branch out to the right and left panels. A navy line stretches across the right edge of the image, as if to remind us that it is in fact a work with spatial limits. At the bottom, a small boat and a small scribble, almost like a prancing animal, float above a purple miasma. Behind all these colors is the knotted, textured grain of the wood, as if the paper itself is thick and strong.
Frankenthaler’s work is often described as light and lyrical, but it has a solemnity. The details give way like small shocks. Recognizable shapes emerge and disappear again. You might see a butterfly, or colors, or movement. You might get the impression that the bounty of purple opens up a world behind this world. You might not feel anything at all. As Frankenthaler’s studio partner Friedel Dzubas said on the first visit Mountains and Sea, ‘the point is, what do you do with what you see? How can you accept what you see? ‘
Frankenthaler has at times been dismissed as a painter of good fortune, her success and productivity being the result of being born when she was, and where, and to whom. The answer to that is to think how many more Frankenthalers there might have been. Women of the two “generations” of Abstract Expressionism were subjected to what painter Jane Freilicher called “anthropological art criticism,” which focused as much on their lives as on their art. Writing about Lee Krasner, Edward Albee said these painters were constrained by “extra-artistic waste… center and experience painting for itself.” In the early years, critics ridiculed Frankenthaler’s paintings as “sweet and unambitious,” “simply beautiful,” “looking crazy” and as resembling the work of her first husband, Robert Motherwell. Years later her paintings were described as incomprehensible and her smaller works for the market as an “indication of moral bankruptcy” for which she “must be held responsible” (surely not just Frankenthaler, then).
“Beau,” said Frankenthaler, “is always a touchy word. “
You can’t prove beauty, it’s there like a fact and you know it and you feel it and it’s real, but you can’t tell someone this does he have. Maybe I could tell and others might recognize it. But it doesn’t give any specific message other than itself, which in turn should be able to bring you into some kind of truth and insight and something beyond art. At the beginning, it is the pleasure which grows, but it is not only the shock of a message, which one can have and dismiss.
It is not easy to say how she managed to produce such pictorial and fluid prints in such an uncompromising process, nor what gives them their alluring and uncontrollable aspect. But for the sake of beauty, see this.