…..that is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen.
The artist Helen Frankenthaler spoke from experience. She was one of the first artists to explore the stained painting technique – a process wherein she poured thinned paint onto raw (unprimed) canvas. Mountains and Sea (1952), considered a breakthrough painting, shows the transparency and delicacy possible with this technique. Here is a very brief interpretation of the painting from the National Gallery of Art. (Curiously enough, there is a Canadian connection to this work.)
I recall being impressed by large canvases of her work in Modern Masters: Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler at the Seattle Art Museum. The Museum called them …three visionary painters who developed distinctive painterly styles. SAM also recognized …their hard-won accomplishments in what was a male-defined domain.
Pace Prints reminded me of Frankenthaler’s printmaking work in a recent exhibition. In Her Mind’s Eye was a show of woodcut prints she completed from 2001 to 2009 with master printmaker Yasu Shibata. She was really demanding for each project he said, in a recent interview for In Her Mind’s Eye. She knew exactly what she wanted.
He points out the connection between her early stained paintings and the process she used in the Pace printshop with the plywood: It’s really abstract just like Helen made in (the) early ’60s or ’50s – that she did the same thing on unprimed canvas – that she poured the oil paint that makes (it) bleed and the edges of the shapes are really soft.
In the 10 minute video Helen Frankenthaler: OK to print she says I don’t confuse – or try not to – working on prints with working on painting. They are totally different mediums. She likens her creative process in a printmaking studio to cooking a meal from an unfamiliar icebox: You mix your own magic – whatever you’re given to work with…..because you are confronted with things that are forcing you to make something wonderful.
When collaborating and working at different print shops like Pace, Tyler Graphics, ULAE, Frankenthaler knew that she had a reputation as a demanding artist. The word is that I am so fussy….so particular…..such a perfectionist. She explains her attitude to the work: In order to have something to really move and work and be beautiful it takes a lot of time and effort and being explicit and being demanding and being controlling and also knowing when to allow…and such.
I am struck by how these ideas, specific to Helen Frankenthaler’s art making practice, are applicable to our current local, national and global challenges. If we want a more peaceful, inclusive society we need to break some of the old rules, routines and ways of being. It will take time, hard work, and dedication. We may not be popular or welcomed, as we demand and adapt to the changes necessary to create a world that moves and works and is beautiful.
Perhaps we take her analogy about the icebox to heart? We are experiencing problems and situations that require creativity to make something wonderful.