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Are you familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings? Probably. How about Helen Frankenthaler’s poured paintings? Possibly - but it’s less likely.
If not, though, you’re in for a treat. Frankenthaler was a bright, sparkling sort of character, something reflected in her art as much as her memoir-fodder life.
“She’s just this really creative and bold voice,” says Jane Findlay, Head of Programme and Engagement at Dulwich Picture Gallery, and curator of their new Frankenthaler exhibition, Radical Beauty. She had a “no walls, just let it rip attitude to creating art.”
The retrospective will be the first UK show of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts, featuring a wide span of work from across her career.
Findlay hopes audiences will find plenty to be inspired by. “She’s very: try everything, give it a go – experiment with this, ask questions, be yourself but push at that. So for people who are artists or practising creatives, she’s very refreshing and a very inspiring person.”
But who was this trailblazer of Abstract Expressionism? Here’s everything you need to know about Helen Frankenthaler.
She was an influential Abstract Expressionist
Frankenthaler was instrumental in the transition from early forms of Abstract Expressionism (think Jackson Pollock) into Colour Field painting (think Mark Rothko). “Her work Mountains and Sea is often seen as a bridge between those two movements,” Findlay notes.
Much of this was down to Frankenthaler’s original technique - “soak stain” - which stretched the boundaries of abstraction at the time.
Soak stain was a pouring technique, Findlay explains. “She worked overhead, like Pollock, so the canvas would be on the floor and she would pour thinned paint on top of that, which would sort of seep into the canvas, and she would move it around. So that was very influential for some of the artists working in Colour Field painting.
“I think she’s so much more than that, though, for me. She’s often put in this kind of ‘connector’ role, but she’s been so innovative throughout her career.”
She created her own techniques
Aside from soak stain, Frankenthaler found all sorts of unique and exciting ways to work, often gathering random objects and incorporating them into her techniques. Even as a child, she would pour nail varnish down the sink to see which way the paint swirled.
A key part of Frankenthaler’s process was something she called “guzzying.” “To ‘guzzy’ means to distress the wood with any kind of tools she could have - like cheese graters, sandpaper, gouges, drills, anything really – and it often depended on which workshop she was in,” Findlay explains.
“She used turkey basters too - nothing was out of bounds. I think she enjoyed the challenge of being in a space and seeing what the parameters were, and then seeing how she could push those and what she could find. That was exciting and invigorating for her as an artist.”
She had some notable relationships
Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, the prominent Abstract Expressionist, in 1958, and the pair soon became renowned for their glittering artist dinner parties. They stayed together until 1971, after which Frankenthaler remained close with her stepdaughter, Lise Motherwell, who remembered her as an adventurous, lively spirit, and recently curated a show of her work.
At the very start of her career Frankenthaler also had a five year relationship with renowned art critic Clement Greenberg, whom Findlay sees as a vital influence.
“When she came out of college, she put on a show of work and invited him along to that with other critics - very bold and confident for a student.
“But I think they had a great relationship, and I think he kind of gave her access that world - you know, they would go and see things together, or she would go and see Pollock in his studio, that kind of thing. But then it was her who’s kind of innovating and thinking and absorbing, and finding her own voice within that as an artist.”
She was influenced by Jackson Pollock…
Seeing Pollock in his studio was a pivotal moment for Frankenthaler, who often spoke of the artist’s effect on her work.
“I think she saw him working on the floor, and just thought ‘wow,’” Findlay explains. “She said it was as if he was a place she wanted to be - like a foreign land she wanted to be part of.
“But then obviously, she took it at her own interpretation, in her own way, and they have a very different approach in terms of how they painted from above. But I think he was a big influence.”
…and by Japanese art
Frankenthaler worked across a variety of mediums – from paint, to wood cuts, to lithography, and drawing – but she was often influenced by Japanese art.
“She owns some Hiroshiges, and worked and collaborated with Japanese printmakers as well,” says Findlay.
“So to create one of the works we have in our show, Cedar Hill, she went to Kyoto and worked side by side with printmakers. She worked with a print woodcarver called Yasu Shibata on some of her seminal prints like Madame Butterfly and the Tales of Genji series as well, but that was in New York.
“So yeah, there’s a very big link between that kind of east and west. There’s a lot of fusion going on, and she’s innovating within that technique.”
She loved colour
Madame Butterfly, mentioned above, is one of Findlay’s favourite pieces in the exhibition.
“It’s really the culmination of all this innovation and experimentation. This incredible, huge work, which looks very wistful and ephemeral, like it’s suspended in air, and it’s got this amazing use of colour - over 100 colours, using 40 blocks.”
Colour fascinated Frankenthaler throughout her career. She used a huge spectrum of shades - from murky browns to pastel pinks, and deep, rich blacks.
She also loved mixing colour, Findlay explains, “so she has quite a unique palette that you can see in her work. And her works are very all-encompassing - they don’t start and finish, you’re just sort of plunged into them - and colour obviously brings that to life.
“She just celebrated colour, I think in a beautiful way.”
Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty is at Dulwich Picture Gallery from September 15, 2021 - April 18, 2022. Find tickets here.