Frankenthaler pushes boundaries in two exhibits at Clark Art Institute

WILLIAMSTOWN — Superficially, Helen Frankenthaler's relationship to abstract expressionism resembled that of an obedient wife to an overbearing husband. She loved the movement, contributed to its growth and, when conflicts arose — say, her affinity for nature and the movement's aversion to representational art — tried not to rock the boat publicly. She didn't want to leave it, something apparent in her many elusive answers to questions about her work, including her most famous creation, "Mountains and Sea."

"The landscapes were in my arms as I did it. I didn't realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn't know what until it was manifest," she said of the 1952 painting, which was inspired by a trip to Nova Scotia.

Yet, while her words may have sought to keep her legacy firmly rooted in abstract expressionism, Frankenthaler pushed its limits through her art, conveying nature's influence over her paintings without losing the elements of abstraction common to contemporaries like Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan. This subtle but authoritative feminist rebellion against abstract expressionism's male-dominated norms is the focus of "As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings," one of two Frankenthaler exhibits at the Clark Art Institute ton display through early fall. The show's 12 works each contain some tie to landscape, according to "As in Nature" curator Alexandra Schwartz.

"While all are primarily abstract, all contain elements of the landscape that function, dialectically, to reinforce their abstraction: as in nature, but also not as in nature," Schwartz wrote in the exhibition's catalog.

Art-speak aside, the curator readily acknowledges that Frankenthaler's feelings about landscape paintings were ambivalent. She said Frankenthaler's hesitance to admit its impact on her work largely stems from the negative reaction to "The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art," a show that Frankenthaler participated in at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1958. Thomas B. Hess, the editor-in-chief of Art News, criticized the exhibit, calling it "a didactic justification of modern American painting by an appeal to common-sense history," according to Schwartz's catalog. It didn't help that one of her romantic partners, critic Clement Greenberg, held a formalist's view of modernist painting. Still, Frankenthaler, a Bennington College graduate and Williams College artist-in-residence from 1979 to 1980, persisted in producing work that drew from natural landscapes.

"Sometimes it's very indirect. Sometimes it's kind of more obvious," Schwartz said during a private showing of the gallery.

One of the more blatant examples happens to be one of the artist's earliest works, "Abstract Landscape" (1951). With clear cubist influences, the work depicts tree trunks, and some have posited that two yellow circles represent coconuts.

Additionally, "Tethys" (1981) and "Scorpio" (1987) incorporate horizon lines, while the "tempestuous" blend of white, gray and black in "Barometer" (1992) evokes Gustave Courbet's "Seascape" paintings for Schwartz, who noted that Frankenthaler was painting in a studio overlooking the Long Island Sound at that time.

Landscape is more difficult to find in "Jockey" (1978). An earthy palette presides, but geometric grounding is lacking. For Schwartz, the painting is significant because it counters sexist reviewers' narrow assessment of her work's aesthetic by blending yellow and brown in an unappealing, aggressive manner.

"The fact that she is so often talked about as being beautiful- — it's relaxing to look at her work, it's lyrical — I think does [it] a disservice in a lot of ways," said Schwartz. "It kind of simplifies it, and in fact her painting is not simple or straightforward at all."

"Birth of the Blues" (1992) is definitely short on simplicity, with no distinct link to landscape art other than the horizontal brush strokes that had been a rarity for Frankenthaler in the decades prior.

"It's so interesting to see her towards the end of her career branching out in ways that she really hadn't explored before," Schwartz said.

Frankenthaler, however, was an experimenter long before she reached her final years. (She died in 2011.) She invented painting's soak-stain technique, drenching canvases with thin paint, and later pioneered "guzzying," scraping wood blocks with various objects to affect their prints.

Her foray into woodcutting was made permanent in 1973, when she completed "East and Beyond." The work is one of 17 woodcuts on display in Frankenthaler's other exhibit at the Clark, "No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts." Like the paintings in the "Picasso: Encounters" exhibition that is at the Clark through Aug. 27, Frankenthaler's woodcuts highlight collaborations, particularly with Japanese craftspeople schooled in the ukiyo-e method.

"That's really a lot of what this work is about as well," Clarke told a group of press touring the exhibit.

A series of six woodcuts, titled "Tales of Genji" (1998), both exemplify this collaborative spirit — they all feature at least 21 colors and as many as 53 — and call to mind Frankenthaler's renowned large-scale paintings, with each measuring 42 inches by 47 inches or 47 inches by 42 inches.

"Frankenthaler was always interested in pushing boundaries," Clarke said.


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