The Arts

As in Nature and No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Times Two at the Clark

As in Nature and No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Times Two at the Clark

Images:  Helen Frankenthaler Foundation © 2017 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

On the first of July, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown opened two exhibitions on renowned abstract artist Helen Frankenthaler – As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings is on view in the Lunder Center at Stone Hill through October 9, and No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts is presented in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery in the Manton Center through September 24.

Frankenthaler’s work is inventive, stunning, and curious. Those who enjoy abstract art will be pleased, but the pair of exhibitions will also appeal to a broad range of visitors who recognize that the dialogue the work creates with the landscape art in the Clark’s permanent collection, as well as the surrounding nature of the Berkshires is remarkable, and quite frankly, a compelling reason to spend some quality time in both exhibitions.

As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings

As the exhibition’s title suggests, As in Nature explores how the natural landscape influenced Frankenthaler’s painting throughout her five-decade career. While the work is abstract, the color palette, the names of the paintings, the forms and textures, and the oft-used horizontal lines suggest or allude to elements associated with landscape. The exhibition does an excellent job framing this narrative and then allowing the visitor to experience or interpret the role nature plays in the work on their own terms.

“Exhibition curator Alexandra Schwartz has brought together wonderful examples of Frankenthaler’s work that are particularly relevant to our understanding of her engagement with nature as both subject and inspiration,” says Olivier Meslay, director of the Clark.

Frankenthaler is known for her color wash and soak-stain technique, which is a process that she pioneered with Mountains and Sea in 1952. By pouring paint, which she’d thinned with turpentine, onto an unprimed canvas, Frankenthaler created beautiful, large-scale, luminous works that seem to have a life of their own. The viewer sees both the artist’s hand at work and the more organic nature of the washes, which mix and mingle as they overlap. As with most non-objective art, Frankenthaler’s work elicits an emotional response, and in many instances, one can’t help but draw associations to landscape.        


Soak-stain brought new attention to Frankenthaler, her process, and her style – a style that was separate from her earlier cubist-inspired work like Abstract Landscape (1951) or a Pollock-inspired pouring process. As Schwartz notes in the accompanying catalog, the painter Morris Louis called Frankenthaler’s soak-stain “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” Here, Louis is referring to Color Field, which was a burgeoning movement in the visual arts. Frankenthaler’s role is more than a bridge though – she was a pioneer with an impressive body of work, and she was one of a handful of women in the abstract movement.

As in Nature examines Frankenthaler’s decades-long engagement with the tradition of landscape painting, within the context of her extraordinary career,” says Schwartz. “The exhibition and catalog consider the critical reception of her work, particularly as a pioneering woman artist.”        

As much as I enjoyed the exhibition as a whole, and as much as I loved some of the earlier work, including Untitled (1962-1962) and Off White Square (1973), the works that really captured my attention and provoked both an emotional response and intellectual curiosity were Red Shift (1990) and Birth of the Blues (1992). As Schwartz points out, Red Shift’s dramatic use of reds and pinks evokes a sense of violence and heat – to me, it’s almost an apocalyptic landscape. On the flip side, Birth of the Blues uses cool, calming blues and greens, and its horizontal lines remind me of the rhythm of river water. Both had an impact.

The work is on loan from the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. A fully-illustrated catalog accompanies the show. It includes a terrific essay by Schwartz, and an essay by Christina Kee, assistant curator with the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection.        

No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts

As The Clark’s promotional material notes, “Frankenthaler experimented tirelessly in her painting, always seeking to develop new styles, materials, and techniques.” Beyond her painting process, which was more solitary by design, the prolific artist also pushed the boundaries in other mediums with collaborators such as Universal Limited Art Edition (ULAE) and Tyler Graphics. No Rules, a companion exhibition in the Manton Center, offers a look at Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking approach to the woodcut.

The exhibition, which features 17 large-scale prints that explore Frankenthaler’s experimentation with the medium, takes its name from a quote by printer Ken Tyler of Tyler Graphics, who worked closely with Frankenthaler for many years: “There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture…that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.”

Curated by Jay A. Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, with the assistance of Williams College graduate student Lucas Matheson, the exhibition clearly shows that Frankenthaler embraced Tyler’s view of rules and invention when it came to the woodcut.

Not unlike her paintings, Frankenthaler’s woodcuts use bold colors and washes. How she achieved the desired effect – a fluidity of color – using the woodcut, which was known for its rigidity, is a feat in and of itself. “Not only are Frankenthaler’s works visually mesmerizing, they are technically complex,” says Clarke. “She was not content to use earlier methods of production; she wanted to push herself in new directions and allowed herself to be encouraged and challenged by the printers and publishers with whom she collaborated.” Her collaboration and experimentation led to the ability to translate her abstract method to the medium.

Let me be clear – these woodcuts are astonishing, and you can only truly experience them in person. No matter how high the image quality, this art cannot be captured online or in an exhibition catalogue. The use of handmade paper; how the artist’s soak-stain idea is carried through to the medium; Frankenthaler’s “guzzying,” which is a word she used to describe the manipulation of the surface of the woodcut by layering, scraping, roughing up the surface of the block; and the printed grain are just a few of the details that capture the viewer’s curiosity. What looks like a watercolor or the artist’s brush or a hand-drawn charcoal line is all accomplished with layered printing by multiple wood blocks.  


Weeping Crabapple (2009), which is the last work that Frankenthaler created, is a wonderful example how Frankenthaler took the woodcut to a new level. It involves 31 colors from 18 woodblocks on handmade paper. As Clarke notes, “It’s more complicated the closer you get.” Here, white streaks appear to be brushed on paint and a line appear to be drawn on by charcoal, but it is all printwork.

The paper itself is important. “Paper becomes part of the artistic process,” explains Clarke. In Essence Mulberry (1977), which is one of the artist’s earlier woodcuts, one-third of the paper remains untouched, while the remaining two-thirds presents rich, deep red verticals on the left and right and a wide blue vertical in the center. With As in Nature in mind, I can’t help but see natural landscape elements infused in Essence Mulberry, as well as Cedar Hill (1983).  

Perhaps the most stunning works, in my mind at least, are Madame Butterfly (2000), and the Tales of Genji series (1998), which are six separate pieces inspired by the classic Japanese story. Madame Butterfly is printed as a triptych that in some ways resembles a Chinese dressing screen – it features luscious purples and blues, soft pinks, and natural paper and woodgrain. Each Tales of Genji work is interesting in its own right, but II and IV, are the most striking – II is a set of deep blues waves with a brown horizontal line near the bottom, while IV is woodgrain and orange with red dots on the bottom like puncture wounds. These are all must-see works in person – no image or description can do them justice.

With the exception of Savage Breeze (1974), which is on loan from the Williams College Museum of Art, the prints are on loan from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

“Frankenthaler experimented with the woodcut until the end of her career, creating a body of work that both engages with printmaking and challenges a conventional understanding of the medium,” notes Meslay. “We hope that showing her paintings and woodcuts in tandem will serve as a reminder and a reaffirmation of Frankenthaler’s status as an artist of enduring value – and introduce her exceptional works to new audiences.”

Frankenthaler’s Connection to the Area

Frankenthaler’s long affiliation with the area began at Bennington College, her alma mater, where she studied under Paul Feeley in the late 1940s. (On a side note, two years ago, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation granted Bennington College $5 million to support the college’s visual arts program. Subsequently, Bennington College named a wing of their arts facility after Frankenthaler.) Meslay notes that “the natural landscape of the northeastern United States served as a significant source of inspiration for Helen Frankenthaler throughout her career.” During the 1979-1980 academic year, Frankenthaler was a participant in the Williams College Artist-in-Residence Program, and at the culmination of her career, the Clark presented a comprehensive exhibition of her prints. This exhibition was curated by Thomas Kerns, who was the director of the Artist-in-Residence Program and the director of the Williams College Museum of Art. Kerns, of course, was instrumental in the creation of MASS MoCA and went on to run the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

With these two new exhibitions, as well as Picasso: Encounters, Orchestrating Elegance, the permanent collection, and the campus itself, the Clark has a lot to offer its visitors this summer. In fact, Art Country, the self-named art enclave that encompasses the Northern Berkshires and Bennington, Vermont, has a veritable embarrassment of riches for daytrippers, overnighters, and residents. It’s fitting that Frankenthaler, a prominent Bennington College alumni with ties to Williams College and the Clark, should be a part of this summer’s schedule.  

If you are an enthusiastic museum-goer or a casual art fan, do yourself a favor and spend a day at the Clark this summer, or if you’re up to it, spend a couple days in so-called Art Country to take all that the Clark, the Williams College Museum of Art, and MASS MoCA have lined up.

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