For many decades after its initial rise, the Abstract Expressionist movement remained synonymous with a distinctive iconography: cue the paint-splattered male, a tragic hero sprawled across the canvas. Although its cast is variously misleading, this reputation has been sustained, in part, by Nina Leen’s 1950 photograph of the so-called ‘Irascibles’, an imposing huddle of the movement’s apparent core practitioners. Rising tall at the top of the frame, Hedda Sterne stands as the token woman: no Lee Krasner, no Elaine de Kooning. While it may be true that many of the prominent female painters associated with Abstract Expressionism emerged during its ‘second generation’, it has taken until recent years for their work to find new breathing space. Following the Barbican’s blockbuster Lee Krasner retrospective in 2019, not to mention Mary Gabriel’s acclaimed group biography Ninth Street Women (2018), this autumn the Dulwich Picture Gallery brings together a collection of Helen Frankenthaler’s soaring, otherworldly woodcuts – on display here for the first time in the UK – curating an exhibition that succeeds in bringing to the fore what New York poet James Schuyler once called Frankenthaler’s “special courage” in moving beyond “the think-tough and paint-tough grain” of American abstract painting.
Gathering thirty-six prints spanning thirty-six years, Radical Beauty not only politely disregards Frankenthaler’s predominant reputation as a painter – best known for her ‘soak-stain’ canvases – but also subtly extracts her from the typical, late-comer associations that the women of Abstract Expressionism so often seem to shoulder. It seems significant, in this respect, that the earliest work on display here – East and Beyond – is dated 1973, two years after Frankenthaler’s divorce from Robert Motherwell, who appears in the Irascibles picture standing behind Rothko. The story of Frankenthaler’s relationship – as a painter and participant – to the world of the New York School can be found in Alexander Nemerov’s recent book, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, published earlier this year. In Dulwich, however, we come face to face with a singular maker and methodologist who, in the words of curator Jane Findlay, “remind[s] us what it means to be artistically free.”
“Since I am essentially a painter,” wrote Frankenthaler in an article of 1977, “I never feel that work in another medium is a matter of reproducing what is on canvas. Rather it is my translation of my image in a new vocabulary.” For viewers familiar with Frankenthaler’s painting, there are certainly “translations” here, from the forms and stains of Freefall (1993), with its wall of oceanic blues, to the swirling spread of Radius (1993), perhaps the most painterly work in the collection. Where Frankenthaler’s paintings are essentially fluid, however, pooling with “The plainly liquid quality of all shadow,” to borrow a phrase from the poet Denise Riley, her woodcut prints assert a kind of presence, a strange solidity and thereness that belies their delicate nature. Like a fossil or a scrap of centuries-old fabric, they seem to only just have made it here in one piece. Several of the prints, including 1974’s Savage Breeze, are accompanied with ghostly working proofs; looking at these, one has the feeling of observing something fading, as if the artworks were slowly decomposing over time, the inverse of a Polaroid.
This quality may have to do with Frankenthaler’s own process of “guzzying” (a term of her own making) which refers to the act of scratching or distressing printing blocks – with a sander or a cheese grater – to achieve a softer impression during printing. Cameo (1980), a thin blue wash of colour over rose-gold paper, features several scratchy, wisp-like zones, like patches of water vapour; Cedar Hill (1983) is like a hazy, Technicolour landscape seen through thick-but-gentle sheets of rain. The apparent softness of Frankenthaler’s work is complicated, however, by the documentary evidence of her meticulous processes, repetitive, exacting, and also frequently collaborative, working especially closely with printmaker Kenneth Tyler and Yasuyuki Shibata, a master woodcut specialist in the Ukiyo-e tradition. The six prints in the Tales of Genji sequence (1998) each went through over fifty working proofs, developed over a period of several years. Madame Butterfly (2000), the exhibition’s culminating triptych, was made using forty-six individual blocks, one hundred and two colours, and printed onto handmade paper.
Nevertheless, despite the knowledge of the physicality and labour that has gone into each work, the staggering achievement of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts is that they don’t appear to have been made at all. Unlike her paintings, which invite the viewer into a complex interpretation of their creation – which colours have been applied in which order, which marks are deliberate, which accidental, and so on – the prints seem to have simply arrived here fully formed. They are like the acheiropoieta of religious iconography, “made without hands”, images that are said to have occurred miraculously without the input of an artist, like the Shroud of Turin or the Veil of St. Veronica. “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once,” suggests Frankenthaler, “as if it were born in a minute.”
Time and again, the effect of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts is of confronting something alien you can’t quite comprehend. Madame Butterfly, which asserts the same quiet grandeur as Georgia O’Keeffe’s late airplane paintings – see Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) – engulfs your viewing like a fog, both obscuring and revealing itself, with colours and shapes that surface briefly only to fall back again, at times elegiac, at other times triumphant, full of promise, like the start of a new century. In the previous room, the Tales of Genji sequence – the exhibition’s highlight – appears to offer a glimpse of the world through senses we don’t have, like being suddenly able to witness hidden meteorological effects, the invisible machinery of weather or magnetic fields. This is an exhibition that confirms Helen Frankenthaler to be an artist of great and singular authority, whose work deserves much more than to be understood as swimming in the wake of the Irascibles. It widens the boundaries of post-war abstraction, inviting us to reassess an artist who is overdue our full attention.