In 1950 the 21-year-old painter Helen Frankenthaler, fresh out of college, went to an exhibition at New York’s Betty Parson’s Gallery that changed her whole perspective on art. ‘It was as if I suddenly went to a foreign country,’ she later recalled. ‘I wanted to live in this land; I had to live there, and master the language.’
The language was in fact American and the discoverer of the new land was Jackson Pollock. After seeing his drip paintings Frankenthaler ditched her easel and, too impatient to bother with primer, applied oil paint straight on to canvas on the floor. The oil sank into the canvas, isolating the pigment on the surface; when thinned with turps, the paint acquired the transparency of watercolour.
Frankenthaler christened it her ‘soak-stain’ method and it soon attracted the interest of other, male painters looking to move beyond abstract expressionism. Morris Louis pronounced it ‘a bridge between Pollock and what was possible’. He and Kenneth Noland both adopted it, but Frankenthaler got little credit for having opened the gate to what would become known as colour field painting. As the privileged daughter of a New York State Supreme Court Judge, with VIP access to the avant-garde through her then boyfriend Clement Greenberg and her later husband Robert Motherwell, she seemed too privileged to be taken seriously. She had weekly hair appointments, for chrissakes.
With hindsight Frankenthaler comes across as extraordinarily serious, never more so than in her work in woodcut, the subject of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty. Marking the tenth anniversary of her death, this show of 36 works — 23 published prints and 13 proofs — is as much a hymn to the creative potential of collaboration as a testament to one woman’s singular genius.
Frankenthaler came to printmaking with the individualistic instincts of a painter. ‘A really good picture,’ she believed, ‘looks as if it’s happened at once’; regardless of the number of false starts, it ultimately relied on ‘one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart… and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.’ It wasn’t an approach obviously suited to the step-by-step mechanics of printmaking. But after initial doubts about the discipline, she discovered the delights of a good workshop where ‘anything you might concoct in your dreams… is always considered plausible and viable’. Master printmakers, it turned out, were capable of ‘magic’.
Of all printmaking techniques, woodcut might have seemed the least conducive to Frankenthaler’s ambiguous, non-linear image-making. ‘Doing a fluid shape out of wood is so foreign to me,’ she admitted. For her first attempt, ‘East and Beyond’ (1973), with Russian-American printmaker Tatyana Grosman she cut out around the forms with a jigsaw. It was with master printmaker Kenneth Tyler that she hit a groove. Like all innovators Frankenthaler was constantly nagged by the question ‘What if?’ and Tyler let her — as inventive as she was —find answers. He stood by while she scarified the paper surface with power sanders and cheese scrapers, or applied paper pulp with a turkey baster and a comb. She called this roughing-up process ‘guzzying’.
Tyler needed the patience of a saint, but she was paying. The large triptych ‘Madame Butterfly’ (2000) employed 46 blocks and 102 colours and was a year in the making — a long gestation for a born-in-a-minute image. ‘I think in the end with anything, no matter how you get it,’ she said, ‘if it’s beautiful and it works, hooray.’ Despite her disapproval of direct translation, she produced full-size preparatory paintings for her prints. The one hanging in the show alongside ‘Radius’ (1993) is remarkably similar to the finished print, but the woodcut has the effect of clinching the image as the wood grain becomes part of the design.
There’s a story of Hans Hofmann, who taught Frankenthaler, asking the then unknown Jackson Pollock, ‘Do you work from nature?’ and Pollock replying, ‘I am nature.’ Frankenthaler was a child of nature. Despite her refusal to explain her work, it’s difficult to disassociate her intuitive confections of space and light from landscape. Her breakthrough soak-stain painting ‘Mountains and Sea’ (1952) was inspired by a visit to Nova Scotia, and it’s hard not to read a green tunnel of vegetation into ‘Radius’ or shimmering blue waters into ‘Freefall’ (1993). Her first print with Tyler, ‘Essence Mulberry’ (1977), was inspired by the tree outside his studio. It went through 65 versions, six of which are in the exhibition. On the fifth working proof is a pencilled note: ‘I like the nuance… but NO schmaltz pliz!’
It’s all nuance, and no schmaltz. Like the ukiyo-e prints that inspired her ‘Tales of Genji’ (1998), Frankenthaler’s art captures a floating world — ethereal, insubstantial, mutable. It’s a different land from Pollock’s and a different language — less assertive, more allusive. Her work was once dismissed as ‘merely beautiful’. Isn’t that enough?