An artist with an innovative edge

For Helen Frankenthaler, color and form are not separate elements, but bound together.

The American artist Helen Frankenthaler makes whichever medium she uses work as a catalyst for her inventiveness. "Breakthrough" is an apt word for her determined questing, over a long career, to achieve a sensitive imagery that might surprise her as well as others.

As a painter and printmaker, she has explored the stimulating interchange between surface and depth. Her surfaces are where her intuitive marks are most immediately seen, true to the sweep and intricacies of her movement.

The depths yield themselves to the eye with greater subtlety. In this contrast of forward and back,the viewer's imagination is actively engaged, and Ms.Frankenthaler's color works as the kind of landscape of the mind that can be fleetingly envisaged in response to passages of expansive music.

For Frankenthaler, color and form are not separate elements. They are integrally bound together, and however long a work may be in the making, the aim is always to make the painting or print seem spontaneous. Brushstroke and line appear to have been momentary gestures. In these, the viewer encounters the act of painting itself.

Frankenthaler has emphasized that she is, above all, a painter and not a printmaker. For this reason, the title of an exhibition of her woodcuts at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is more than a clever double meaning. It is called "Against the Grain."

The technical expertise involved in making prints and the tricky nature of building up a wood-block image using numerous blocks, are indeed against the grain of the (apparently) "spontaneous" painter.

Yet, working with different printmaking workshops, she evidently enjoys the sheer challenge of using difficult print media to discover new ways of investigating and presenting the possibilities of her liberated approach to art.

Frankenthaler sees "rules" as something to be ignored or broken in the service of a necessary originality and freshness. It's art as adventure.

First she turned to etchings and lithographs, techniques that might be expected to offer her the most fluency and painterly ease. But she also experimented with woodcuts, although woodcuts are, traditionally, boldly precise and not particularly suited to the fluid, watery staining for which Frankenthaler was early famous.

The woodcuts in this exhibition (which continues through Feb. 5) come from the Kenneth Tyler Print Collection. It was in the workshop of this master printmaker that Frankenthaler made her most extraordinary woodcut prints. They have all the character of her paintings - and more: The grain, texture, and even the residual knots of the wood blocks ("on the plank," like Japanese prints) are a crucial ingredient.

This wonderful, grainy texture does not freeze the freedom of her movements, but it locks them in the gentlest way to the paper surface.

The truth is, Frankenthaler works with the grain rather than against it.

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