‘There are no rules:’ Clark Art Institute features work of Helen Frankenthaler

  • “Tethys,” acrylic on canvas, 1981. —Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Scorpio,” acrylic on campus, 1987. —Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Red Shift,” acrylic on canvas, 1990. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Abstract Landscape,” 1951, oil and charcoal on canvas. Frankenthaler was 23 when she completed this cubist-inspired work and had not yet developed her full abstract style. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Freefall,” 12-color woodcut printed on hand-dyed paper, 1993. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Madame Butterfly,” 102-color woodcut printed on handmade paper, 2000. —Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Tales of Genji II,” 41-color woodcut printed on handmade paper, 1998. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Weeping Crabapple,” 31-color woodcut printed on handmade paper, 2009. This was reportedly the last artwork Frankenthaler ever made.  Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • “Off White Square,” acrylic on canvas, 1973. This painting measures roughly 21 x 6 ½ feet. Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2017

Landscapes might not be the first subject that comes to mind when you consider the work of abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler.

But at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, some of Frankenthaler’s paintings and woodcuts are getting a fresh look, one that suggests the New York artist was indeed influenced both by nature and the tradition of landscape painting — and that she took an unorthodox approach to woodcuts that resulted in some of her most memorable work.

“As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings” and “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts,” on exhibit in two separate galleries at the Clark, feature just under 30 paintings and woodcuts by Frankenthaler, who became one of the leading abstract expressionists in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in New York in 1928 (she died in 2011), Frankenthaler was “always willing to push the boundaries” of art, said Jay Clark, the museum’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs and the lead curator of the woodcut exhibit.

“She created woodcuts that were both technically very complex and a real function of collaboration,” added Clark. “She worked with a range of printers and publishers who helped push her in new directions and challenge herself.”

And Alexandra Schwartz, guest curator of the painting exhibit, says many of Frankenthaler’s works were inspired by nature, and that she used a number of cues — preliminary outdoor sketches, earth tones, textured layers of paint — from the natural world to create her abstract canvases.

The artist also alluded to nature through some of the titles of her paintings, like “Milkwood Arcade” from 1963, she said.

“She was interested in the play between the natural and the artificial,” said Schwartz, a New York-based art historian and curator. “She was also interested in the upheaval in nature, the wildness you could find there.”

Indeed, Frankenthaler once said that a big part of art was about making “order out of chaos, and nature is always fighting the same battle.”

These new exhibitions — in June the Clark opened two other summer shows, including one of prints by Pablo Picasso — come 37 years after the Clark hosted a mid-career retrospective on Frankenthaler, who at the time was an artist-in-residence at nearby Williams College.

“She also studied at Bennington College, which is just 20 miles north of here, so she has some connection to this area,” added Schwartz. “The landscapes of the Northeast were definitely one of her influences … this new show gives us an opportunity to look at her work from some new angles.”

A big footprint

The Clark exhibits make it clear that Frankenthaler was rarely one to work on a small scale. One of her paintings on display, “Off White Square,” a 1973 work awash in bright colors, measures about 21 feet (horizontally) x 6 and ½ feet (vertically), while two others clock in at roughly 9 x 7 feet.

Schwartz said Frankenthaler spread her canvases on the floor of her studio; pictures of her often show her crouched at an edge of these huge canvases, or poised on tiptoe, as she stretches to reach the interior with a brush.

Early in her career, Schwartz noted, the artist also developed a technique she called “soak-stain,” in which she took oil paint thinned with turpentine and poured the mix directly on an unprimed canvas, allowing her to layer washes of paint on top of one another, which created unusual color combinations.

That kind of mix is evident in “Giralda,” a 1956 work that references the Moorish bell tower of a cathedral in Seville, Spain, which Frankenthaler had visited a few years earlier. The mix of brown, green and blue in the palette, Schwartz noted, also recalls the dry landscape of southern Spain.

And, Schwartz says, Frankenthaler often used horizontal lines across her canvases, just as traditional landscape painters did, and then adopted forms of nature — trees, clouds, cliffs and specific colors — that she reimagined and abstracted.

“Over the course of the 1950s, Frankenthaler continued to make paintings that toed the line between landscape and abstraction,” Schwartz writes in an accompanying catalog.

In ensuing decades, Frankenthaler switched primarily to acrylic paint, and her work became even more abstract. Yet nature’s reflection can still be seen, says Schwartz, as can the influence of landscape painters whose work Frankenthaler had closely studied, such as 19th-century painters Gustave Courbet and J.M.W. Turner.

“Barometer,” from 1992, and “Red Shift,” from 1990, both seem to reference those artists, using highly textured surfaces and palettes of limited color to evoke stormy scenes. “Barometer,” with its grays and whites, could pass for a seascape, while the colors of “Red Shift” are so jarring, said Schwartz, “that it almost has this end-of-the-world sensibility to it.”

The latter painting also has a number of blobs of red paint across its top, like other-worldly clouds, so thick that “it makes you wonder if the paint could still be wet after 25 years,” she said with a laugh. 

Many-colored woodcuts

Frankenthaler got a late start in woodcuts — she didn’t make her first one until 1973, when she was in her mid 40s — but she eventually created intricate works that used as many as 46 separate woodblocks and 102 different colors.

Jay Clark, the woodcut exhibit curator, says Frankenthaler had previously worked with other kinds of printing, such as lithographs and etchings, but found woodcut prints more intriguing, particularly their place in Asian art.

Frankenthaler worked closely with Japanese wood carvers and printers to create increasingly complex woodcuts that were then printed on handmade paper. She also scored her wood blocks with unusual implements, like old dental tools, to create the textured effects she wanted before printing. The term she coined for this technique? “Guzzying.”

“She wanted to keep pushing the traditional definitions [of woodcuts] and bring in more color,” said Clark.

In a series of woodcuts, “Tales of Genji,” from 1998, the artist did just that, using as many as 53 colors in prints that took their names from an 11th-century work of Japanese literature, though the abstract images are not connected to the tale.

“What’s really fascinating about this work is how it’s printed in ways that seem to reveal a natural grain in the wood,” added Clark. “That’s a created effect from the carving and the added colors.”

For “Freefall,” at 6 ½ x 5 feet the largest print in the exhibition, Frankenthaler worked with dyed paper-pulp printed with color blocks to create layers of color, including the print’s rich blue interior.

As exhibit notes explain, Frankenthaler said she created her unique woodcuts by bypassing conventional techniques: “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.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings” is on view at The Clark Art Institute through Sept. 24, and “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts” is on view through Oct. 9. For ticket prices, visiting hours and additional information, go to clarkart.edu.