Frankenthaler establishes order among abstraction

It is rare for an artist to find their voice in the middle of a movement, rarer still for that artist to be female. Enter Helen Frankenthaler: an anomaly among the male-dominated abstract expressionist field. Running until Oct. 9 at the Clark Art Institute, As in Nature exhibits Frankenthaler’s abstract expressionist paintings and prints.

Frankenthaler, a Bennington College graduate, first gained artistic recognition with the monumental piece Mountains and the Sea. Strictly traditional abstract expressionism provides a vehicle for raw emotion; originating in New York, it contains subject matter steeped in typical American life. Frankenthaler’s approach, however, is not wholly spontaneous and surreal. Unlike classic abstract expressionists, her works break from tradition by seeking order amongst the chaos.

In paintings like Jockey (1978), the vertical orientation of the painting itself marks a departure from the horizontal layout so typical of landscapes. Everything about the painting’s depiction should scream unnatural. The right half of the painting, for example, boasts a saturation achievable only through a process of Frankenthaler’s own invention: the ‘soak-stain’ method, which involves allowing paint to seep through an unprimed canvas and then either manipulating the excess with sponges or allowing interplay between colors. Although Frankenthaler’s “color interaction” breeds inorganic hues, the piece’s subtler motifs evoke natural forms. Within the same painting, she draws on earthy tones – blues, greens and browns. What would otherwise resemble an uncouth assemblage of geometric blocks belies sophistication. There is, in fact, careful subtlety in allowing the artificial and natural hues to blend; it allows for movement and dynamism instead of stodgy, inanimate bulk.

If anything, Frankenthaler’s work provides one of the most realistic representations of nature, where cacophony and imperfections abound. In Barometer (1992), she relies on gray scale to build dimension. The paint is applied thickly, with variable texture throughout the lower half and largely negative space at the top, implying a horizon. Even the title itself suggests a connection to the weather and weather patterns, yet again referring to nature in the face of previously rigid abstract expressionist constraints. 

From 1979 to 1980, Frankenthaler was an artist-in-residence at the College in a program pioneered by Thomas Krens, former director of The Guggenheim. No Rules, an exhibition of her woodcuts currently on display at the Manton Research Center, showcases the heavy experimentation and collaboration that underscore much of Frankenthaler’s work with woodcuts. Woodcuts like Savage Breeze (1974) feature incredible luminescence. Savage Breeze derives its distinctiveness from Frankenthaler’s painstakingly superimposing an entire block of white-inked wood over the original print when she decided it was not bright enough.

Traditional woodcuts are comprised of images carved into a single block or several different colored blocks. Frankenthaler traverses these discrete boundaries. Cameo (1980), despite its muted palette, is the antithesis of muddled and opaque. To achieve its gleaming finish, Frankenthaler used sandpaper, dental floss, a cheese scraper and even gauze. The curved line in the lower right quadrant, energetically leading up and out into brighter hues, further enhances the perception of depth that the use of light lends to Cameo. In this contained tension, Frankenthaler yet again references nature, with movement in the found line paralleling the upwelling of the sea. The reflective and still surface also borrows cues from the ocean. The focal point of Cameo, however, lies in the merging of semi-straight lines towards the top, the off-kilter, playful diagonals melding together by bright light.

Of her work, Frankenthaler said, “Anything that has beauty and provides order, anything resolved in a picture gives pleasure – a sense of rightness, as in being one with nature. … It is an order familiar and new at the same time.” Frankenthaler’s approach in and of itself is not revolutionary. In fact, we see its likeness ranging as far afield as the use of opposition in ballet or foil characters in literature. Located in different disciplines, the notion remains the same: Take a convention, and overturn it. The reason that Frankenthaler holds her own amongst other artistic giants like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko is because she takes risks. Neatly adhering to the status quo, especially during an artistic movement with neatly defined boundaries on how to use geometry or color theory, is the kind of thing that allows for umbrella terms and collective grouping in art history courses.

Frankenthaler’s work holds its own, with a vivacity and fluidity that is equal parts transparent and accessible. Through overturning conceptions of what is and is not abstract art, and interweaving identifiable elements from the natural world, she creates a style that is refreshing and uniquely her own.

Strict cubism and abstract expressionism often fall short of getting through to wider audiences, but Frankenthaler bridges this gap with subtle recurring nature motifs that are unmistakably concrete, providing a familiar order amidst the chaos. 

Frankenthaler’s ‘As in Nature’ exhibition will be on view at the Lunder Center, Manton Research Center and at the Clark until Oct 9. Photo courtesy of Wendy Hernandez.

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