‘Making Painting’ has just opened at Turner Contemporary in Margate. This is an eye-catching exhibition pairing the initially curious twosome of JMW Turner and Helen Frankenthaler – separated by over a hundred years but united in their… in their… handling of paint? Response to landscape? Exploration of light? The romantic sublime? According to curator and Turner scholar James Hamilton: it started out as ‘Ten artists and Turner’ and as time passed names began being shed until a final playoff which saw Frankenthaler win through. A sort of painterly X Factor then. Upon consideration though one can see the logic and it was more about a “gut feeling” of two artists that could work rather than an explicit relationship of say, style, theme or geography. Curation by gut feeling – now that is a novelty!
In this country we are blissfully aware of Turner as a landscape artist par-excellence. Forever tied to the name of Constable, their place in the nation’s hearts is secure. The Clore Gallery is a temple to his vast and prodigious output. Frankenthaler on the other hand is quite sparsely represented on these shores, championed mainly by lower-profile abstract painters (unfortunately synonymous terms). Her work has a historical aura about it which reaches almost mythological proportions, with the usual line about being a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible” floating in the ether whenever her groovy signature is in sight. I have always found it endearing that she signed her works so often when most of her contemporaries favoured the back of the canvas – a link with older traditions perhaps? Frankenthaler was a passionate student of painting, a competitive artist and one who saw herself as part of its continuum.
The two artists are represented by paintings and watercolours. In fact, water is one clear link between them: the way it carries colour, extending its reach into the corners, lapping against the edges, the bleeding and flowing of pigmented washes, suggestive of form or simply evocative of place as felt experience. It seems entirely appropriate therefore, that the show be held looking out on the spectacular backdrop of the North Sea on its way to meet with the English Channel. The gallery has light flooding in to its spaces and that mesmeric tidal flow framed by massive windows – nature’s own watercolour. What an engaging exhibition to conceive of and what a great place to put it on. It needs to be stated that entry is free.
Each artist is given different rooms with only a joining corridor space providing an eye level meeting of their works. This space creates quite a jump to the eye – partly due to the size differences of the works in there. Frankenthaler needed to work big to get the maximum out of her techniques, and although a painterly relationship with Turner is there, it would have been a step too far to hang their works side by side. The closest we get is a view through to an easel sized Frankenthaler framed by two Turners, one each side of the entrance / exit wall.
The hanging is sensitive and well thought out. Turner is.. Turner, dazzling in watercolour, assured and masterly in panorama and still surprising when he lets rip with those instantly recognisable impastoed passages which dissolve form and create luminous whorls. The usual soft, whitened chrome yellow is everywhere as are the trademark blue-brown ensembles. The easy gestures of his watercolours sometimes become wrestling matches in the paintings in oil. It’s quite a different ball-game to get luminosity with oil paint and that familiar brushed arc has to be reigned in to stop it killing the space or becoming over wrought and contrived. One of the most beautiful works is when the handling is at its most sober then – the unfinished ‘”The Evening Star” with a gentle broken, curvy flick of light lifting off the horizon; light breaking through the leaden distant cloud. Where sea meets sky, the liminal calm and crystalline wetness of – fittingly – the Margate beach. A quiet masterpiece. I mused what he would have made of Frankenthaler’s work and even more so how would he have painted today? Would he still be painting landscapes? I wonder if it was landscape as a theme which eventually allowed him to paint as he wanted to paint, rather than always wanting to paint landscapes per se. The title of the show seems to reinforce this point. This is an exhibition that deals with how paintings get made rather than any specifics of subject matter. Many of Frankenthaler’s quotes about her work could equally have been uttered by Turner -”There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about.”
Frankenthaler’s best works in this show are when there is some kind of pictorial drama in them. “For EM” being a standout work. An adumbration of a Manet painting of a fish (hence the title). As in the work “Hotel Cro-Magnon”, in the rooms dedicated to her work from the 50s. The dramatic use of black at the top as a device energises the rest of the picture. In the way also that Matisse did just before these works, with “The Snail” in 1953. It is easy to read her paintings solely as abstractions from something – especially places, but this is too simplistic an approach and tends to close, rather than, open doors; it also blocks any deeper interrogation of the work. Working on canvases on the floor to stain colour and then hoisting them up to view will naturally create a swing between depth perceptions – the approach also often produces recessive landscape-esque vistas. Many of the bigger works set up these sorts of deep spaces, created through tonal washes as much as changes of hue. The space is brought back up to a foreground of sorts, with dollops of paint and smaller incidents. Whilst I can see the results lending themselves to allusion and even forgive her embracing of ambiguity, I have a nagging doubt that one cannot control intentions as much as onlookers think – especially ambiguous ones. The spaces that are created here, are simply what happens when you mop in acrylic: it floods, puddles and fades in places. She clearly went with this and sought expression in response to these consequences. After this, any manner of subject-matter can be bolted on.
There are two questions here I feel. One: could she have fought more against the nature of her materials, resisted the easy stain effects – as good as a lot of the ‘drawing’ in them is – could an even greater synthesis have been found? Two: is there any lesson for painters today? I am inclined to answer yes to both. I would say that Frankenthaler can be an uneven painter; this is a result of her sheer honesty and openness to her materials. At times, she did clearly go looking for the awkward, the uncomfortable, but also couldn’t always stop the facile from creeping in. “Whatever the medium, there is the difficulty, challenge, fascination and often productive clumsiness of learning a new method: the wonderful puzzles and problems of translating with new materials.” This is the trade off. You have to sift through much grit to get the gold. The works have some delightful qualities though: the sheer pleasure in seeing large areas of washed in colour is such a refreshing sight and one in sharp counterpoint to much of today’s mini, faux-rustic abstract paintings. I fondly remember back in the day how many students used to work à la Frankenthaler, never really following it up after graduating though. Often as not the post degree studio spaces dictating otherwise.
Frankenthaler’s paintings have that familiar languid-like quality that is so seductive, yet at times their force can dissipate and the colour can look a bit washed out. As a consequence, some of the lighter hued works didn’t age as well. Maybe it was the simple fade of early manufactured acrylic giving them a sort of veil of time quality or was it their lack of more dramatic contrasts? The colour is more often than not beautifully pitched in her paintings. Cool and warm secondary colours swim about softened primaries. Yet it is when earth pigments are introduced that things really start to happen. Umbers, rusts, greys and blacks all add gravity to the works. I enjoy seeing her paintings with full out primaries but they don’t seem as comfortably felt as when earths are used. It seems that the use of organic hues was more naturally suited to the emotional ambition and climate of her best paintings.
“Burnt Norton” has an overtly landscape configuration but again I am not convinced by this as a straightforward reading. It seems more akin to the work of Kenneth Noland from around the early 70s with floods of colour and incidents at top and bottom of the picture – in Noland’s case these would be thin stripes spanning the width. Frankenthaler takes on board the serial qualities of Noland without ever buying into the process. She wanted more surprises I guess. Her paintings have a similar classicism to Noland with an understated symmetry. I would not consider her as a fully paid up colour field painter. Her centre of gravity seemed to remain as more a ‘chromatic abstract expressionist’ (second generation). Of course, she became famous for those fields of washed colour but invariably they are charged by the gestural, which serves the colour, supports it and often animates the interaction between different layers of colours. Her strength was in her quite overt drawing as much as it was in her colour.
“For EM” was a work from 1981 when she was a massively experienced painter but it is the room of paintings from the ‘50s that held so much surprise. The linear brush marks, the hesitancy of decisions, probing and problematical in equal measure, are all so revealing. This quote seemed to sum them up: “You have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once.”
Turner by comparison has so much technique that one can almost feel his angst in trying to work against his own facility of touch, to avoid cliché and to get to… himself, to stretch himself and find what he could do with paint that no other could. Also a fiercely competitive artist, he needed to go up against the Old Masters to get that spark going. The painting “Thompson’s Aeolian Harp”, 1809, is an earlier more restrained work with an almost malevolent use of green; it is acidic and simmers brilliantly. There is a surprising double repoussoir with the second tree at the right edge – I am not aware of even Poussin ever doing something like that. Competition and travel: he painted so many works in so many places that it looked like he could paint them in his sleep. Weather became his wake-up call. Storms, gales and winds or blazing suns produced more agitated responses, his brush marks get looser and the colours get more undefined. The more familiar gestural ones eschew green – that most inert of colours – and whip up their vortices with creams, browns and blues. In all the works though he never lets go of unity. The calmer skies in a Turner can at first glance seem spare – emptied of clouds in the way that Constable’s rarely do – yet they never lose any pace in their colour. There are no holes or unwieldy passages of paint. The pastel hues being so deft and airy – again this comes straight out of watercolour, allied with a consummate technique.
In the watercolours, however, it is the paper ground that achieves this light. Here again we can turn to Frankenthaler, for she stains colour in and it is the way the ground colour glows through that gives her work its luminosity. It was thus peculiar to see a work like “Barometer” from 1992 – the one in the corridor framed by the Turners, which felt almost like an oil painting in approach and one with which I struggled the most. This painting seemed to be too directly a seascape, rather than suggestive of something palpable as informed by nature… maybe it was too Turner ‘lite’? Clearly this was why it was hung where it was. Was that decision maybe a bit whimsical though – trying too hard to choreograph the viewers’ response? Also the colours were all heading the same way, whereas in the better works they are often playing in different key signatures yet still end up in harmony.
We are blessed with amazing Turners in Britain, but Frankenthaler is long overdue a major show in this country. Her work may not be so much a bridge to what is possible these days, perhaps more a well trodden path, yet it is still one which could lead to undiscovered lands.
Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW is on at Turner Contemporary until 11 May