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Helen Frankenthaler, who from age 22 was a force in contemporary American art, is the focus of two current exhibitions, At One Stroke: Prints by Helen Frankenthaler at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), and Frankenthaler on Paper at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery. Each offers clues to her significance over six decades, and her role as a transitional figure between abstract expressionism and color field painting.
Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is identified with the soak-stain method, which infuses color through the introduction of diluted oils into unprimed, or raw, canvas. The result is pigmentation that seems to emerge from within the fabric, rather than being applied to it. Soak-stain was a departure from impasto, a technique common among abstract expressionists, in which paint is practically spooned onto the canvas in thick swirls. Though more subtle, soak-stain produced color so intense that even Frankenthaler prints appear to have been painted.
Arthur Ross visitors are met at the door by Freefall (1993), a large woodcut. Initially, the impression is of a bold field of medium blue. Draw closer, and the palette explodes into luminous shards of indigo, cobalt, violet, cerulean, and aquamarine, 27 shades in all. Instead of hitting a solid wall of color, the eye is carried through an evening sky and skims along the sea. In the woodblock print Cedar Hill (1983), 10 colors swirl in a shower. The palette shifts in Santa Fe XII (1990) to the ochre of adobe pueblos, earthy gold-brown punctuated with bright projectiles of contrasting color, like fireworks arcing through the southwestern sky.
Frankenthaler often referenced places she’d visited. Her seminal work, Mountains and Sea (1952), depicts Cape Breton Island. Held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., it’s a misty vision from the edge, where angular cliffs meet the Atlantic in a sweep of soft color.
The local exhibits include several such works. At PAFA, the monotype Bay Area Monday V (1982), which grew out of a visit to San Francisco, reads like an approaching storm. Light transforms to dark, portending heavy weather and a long week ahead. Across town at Arthur Ross, conditions have improved somewhat in Bay Area Wednesday (1985). This one is an oil in wintry whites and grays, with an open center framing a shadowy figure. The impression is of an ice fisherman, leaning in to check his line. Besides providing us a fish-eye view, Frankenthaler implies that Wednesday’s bay may not be the same as Monday’s.
Japan inspired two works at PAFA that appear quite different. In Geisha (2003), Frankenthaler depicts a not-quite-disembodied kimono—shoulders and torso draped in soft mauve folds and graceful sleeves. By contrast, Tout-à-Coup (1987) is a glowing punch in the eye. A red-on-orange, grid-like composition which, gallery notes inform us, hearkens to traditional Japanese woodblock as well as Cubist influences in Frankenthaler’s later work.
Though her inspirations and media evolved, Frankenthaler’s signature delicate, graceful lines and intense color carry through. She was not afraid to make art that could be described as “beautiful,” despite the belittling connotation the assessment might imply. She considered a work’s appearance to be an outgrowth of the physical act of creating it, explaining, “A picture that is beautiful, or that comes off or that works looks as if it was all made at one stroke.”
Technique is what drew Frankenthaler as a young artist to Jackson Pollock, whom she encountered in 1951, and whose novel methods she would adopt. Pollock is best known for laying the canvas on the floor and attacking from all angles. The approach captured the attention of Frankenthaler, whose father, New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler, had encouraged her to follow her instinct and break rules. She described Pollock’s impact in a 1993 interview: “The approach took painting literally off the easel, so that instead of dealing head-on with four sides and four corners, you felt the boundaries of the canvas, the scale of it—were endless. That thrust of shoulder, as compared to wrist alone and zeroing in, and telescoping was nothing compared to this sweep of handling the method and material in a different way.”
“Born in a minute”
"A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once,” she said. “It's an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked…I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute."
Making Music (1995), on view at PAFA, is that kind of picture. Before your brain can process it, your eyes are at the symphony, sitting behind a conductor and impossibly, seeing the sound. Frankenthaler accomplishes all this with economy. A wide brushstroke bisects the composition, loaded with just enough black ink to create fine individual lines, a staff. A circle, an embracing horizontal blue line crossed with a vertical brown one, is the conductor. And in gold, the wash of melody, dripping rhythm.
For Frankenthaler, a good picture was like a good book or a good score. They feel inevitable, as though each dab, word, or note emerged in perfect sequence. The artist’s hand never shows.
Making Music (1995). Etching, aquatint and mezzotint, 16 x 24 3/8 inches (40.64 x 63.5 cm), ed. 25/30 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Gift of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York, 2019.17.15 © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Deep Sun (1983). Twenty-two color etching, soft-ground etching, aquatint, spit bite aquatint, drypoint, engraving, and mezzotint 30 x 40 1/2 inches (76.2 x 102.9 cm), AP 2/16 Gift of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York Photo: Kevin Ryan, courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
What, When, Where
Frankenthaler on Paper. Through March 29, 2020, at Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, Fisher Fine Arts Library, 220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-2083 or ArthurRossGallery.org.
At One Stroke: Prints by Helen Frankenthaler. Through April 12, 2020, at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, 118-128 North Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 972-7600 or pafa.org.
Arthur Ross Gallery is accessible by wheelchair from a path off of 34th Street from College Hall, and from the parking lot. Access the entrance through the Duhring Wing on the south side of the building across from Irvine Auditorium. For access assistance Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm, call (215) 898-8322.
PAFA's Historic Landmark Building is accessible through a street-level elevator in the rear of the building. Staff or security will greet visitors and assist them in accessing the museum's front lobby and passenger elevator. An accessible and family-friendly restroom is located on the second floor. Wheelchairs are available to borrow at no charge on a first-come basis at the front desk. Large-print materials are provided at the front desk. Tours for those with special needs are available. Personal-care attendants are admitted without charge, and service animals are welcome.
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