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Monday, September 4, 2017

A double shot of Frankenthaler at The Clark

Madame Butterfly 2000 - woodcut on three sheets of handmade paper
Labor Day doesn't have to mean the end of summer, especially when two summer blockbuster-worthy exhibitions of work by the great Helen Frankenthaler are still on view for several weeks to come at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Not ashamed to say, I am a big fan of Frankenthaler, so I went to these exhibitions with high expectations - and I was quite simply blown away.

Milkwood Arcade 1963 - acrylic on canvas
As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, which features 12 major works on canvas, is on view through Oct. 9 in the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a transcendentally airy space that brings the woodsy surroundings into the galleries, making it the ideal setting for this selection. No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts, on view through Sept. 24, fills the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper with 17 virtuosic prints, spanning the artist's several decades of experimentation with the woodcut medium.

Both exhibitions take their titles from Frankenthaler quotes, and both quotes serve well to introduce the viewer to the essence of her thought processes in relation to making abstract art. The paintings can be understood as landscapes - or inspired by landscapes - but to me, that's not important, except where that concept serves to help a viewer uncomfortable with the abstract to open up to it.

Summer Harp 1973 - acrylic on canvas
Here's the quote for As in Nature:
Anything that has beauty and provides order (rather than chaos or shock alone), anything resolved in a picture (as in nature) gives pleasure - a sense of rightness, as in being one with nature.

My interpretation of that quote, along with viewing the works it is attached to, would be to crystallize Frankenthaler's pursuit of beauty, order, pleasure, and rightness in the form of abstract images that are resolved equally as well as are things in nature - and that the painter (or viewer) may feel at one with nature (their own nature, perhaps) in having the experience of the paintings.

The quote for No Rules evokes quite another sensation and understanding of the artist's process and intentions:
There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture ... that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.

Savage Breeze 1974 - woodcut on handmade paper
Now we have a person in pursuit of things distinctly other than beauty, order, pleasure and rightness. Yet these thoughts, this insistence on iconoclasm is equally crucial to the life of any artist worth her salt. Viewing the prints in No Rules, one confronts astonishing breakthroughs - just as promised. First, in the earliest prints from the 1970s, there is the freshness of completely abstract imagery, as Frankenthaler delves into a difficult new medium with a simple approach.

Later, her innovations mount up: Dying pulp to insert background colors into almost absurdly large prints (don't ask where they got wood big enough); combining crazy numbers of blocks and colors into one image (the highest count in this show is 102 colors from 46 blocks, for the print shown at the top of this post); and developing textures and color effects never seen in this medium before (such as "guzzying" the block with sandpaper, dental tools, cheese graters, and gauze).

Cedar Hill 1983 - woodcut on light pink handmade paper
With these works, Frankenthaler exploded the tradition of Japanese woodblock printing into shards, and put it back together as a new, powerful form of modern art, all the while retaining the best qualities of the original medium's craft, through extensive collaboration. It is a stunning achievement.

As for her innovations in painting, Frankenthaler was the first to stain thinned paint directly into canvas, a technique that greatly influenced the more celebrated Morris Louis, and may also have been the spur that influenced Jackson Pollock to work in drips above a canvas placed on the floor. Needless to say, being a great abstract woman painter in the 1950s had its complications in relation to the dominant art movement's insistent macho characteristics, and she therefore struggled at times to be considered on their same level.

Snow Pines 2004 - woodcut on handmade paper
But she came through. And the pieces in this show do a great job of demonstrating why, as they span the '50s to the '90s without even the hint of a loss of power. These paintings are a joy to behold, particularly for their colors, which range from greens and browns through primaries to the hottest pink you ever saw - and a totally grey painting of equal oomph.

Returning to the prints for a moment: Be sure to understand these are not in any way efforts to reproduce Frankenthaler's paintings; rather, they are fabulous immersions into color and forms all on their own. Yes, they resemble the style of the paintings, and provide similar pleasures - but they also offer distinct characteristics due to their birth as woodblocks inked onto paper, and are delectable as such, as well as technically jaw-dropping.

Extend your summer of art - go see these two shows.

Red Shift 1990 - acrylic on canvas


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