Helen Frankenthaler: Juggler of Images, Colors, Textures

The artist's prints, on exhibition at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, engage the senses with giddy color

IT is in the initial pivot, that first step into the gallery when a visitor enters and takes a quick look around, that a summary impression of Helen Frankenthaler's prints is richly and strikingly informative. The unintended whole architecture of her work seen on the walls (plus a bronze screen) becomes an art ``franchise'' of well-determined spontaneity, a little bit giddy with color, and rooted in an intuition incapable of dishonesty.

After the pivot, when the blue-collar details of each work emerge, the appraisal rises fourfold in value. In the realm of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler's 75 prints and related drawings on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) here are as resonant, beautiful, and spontaneously crafted as any of her paintings or other works accomplished in some 40 years of creating. The exhibit was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Her early smaller prints from the 1960s are meticulously shy and restrained when compared with the enormous, coolly vivid and commanding blue and black of ``Freefall,'' a woodcut, which was completed for the exhibition. But it is Frankenthaler's path from there to here that is as compelling as each footprint along the way.

Even though some of the early prints are small-scale and done with muffled joy, Frankenthaler clearly loves the experimentation. Her fame flows from a clear, unique esthetic and a willingness to playfully, and successfully, experiment in incremental steps.

She told this newspaper in an interview about painting in 1979: ``I get very bored with what comes too easily. Especially if it originally was difficult to achieve. If I repeat or exploit what has worked or succeeded I produce something tired but beautiful. I'd much rather rely on something I don't know than on what might look limp or too familiar.''

What happened to Frankenthaler in 1951 was an encounter with the drip-painting techniques of fiery Jackson Pollock. Well-known to her were all the antecedents to Pollock. She was already painting seriously and determined to have a life in art; Frankenthaler went on to experiment with the technique of staining and soaking paint on a canvas rather than having it stick and dry to the surface.

Her consistently painterly gestures, much more sparse and airy than Pollock's ever were, have always remained in the abstract. She has said that her swirling, seminal work, ``Mountains and Sea,'' was done in 1952 as a ``totally abstract memory of landscape.'' She described mixing housepaints, enamels, oil paints, and turpentine in old coffee cans, and spilling the resulting soup on the canvas.

Not until 1961 did she venture into printmaking, tentative at first because of the time involved in the various processes. She felt she would be too impatient for printmaking. Certainly she was not intimidated by the discipline needed. But it was a hesitancy that soon disappeared, partly due to the ideal working environment provided by Universal Limited Art Editions in West Islip, N.Y.

Since l961, a formidable body of her prints and works of multiple techniques and materials has been accomplished. And the exhibit at the MFA is more than a wonderful introduction. Lithographs, woodcuts, monotypes, proofs, and a large, truly masculine bronze screen with three panels are here.

``Guadalupe'' indicates how far she has ventured away from the singular world of putting paint on canvas. Described as ``mixografia on handmade paper,'' this earthy, large work has a built-up, uneven surface with an almost dried, volcanic texture to it. Gashes were made when the surface pulp was wet, or at least just before it went from mush to hard.

In the lower left, a rough-hewn circular design exudes a rusty-brown, jagged outline with a smaller circle embedded in it. The work is essentially in three unequal sections separated by two wide straight lines, with a few more angled gashes here and there suggesting a weathered, Southwestern influence. Not quite blue, not quite purple, the muted, gradated colors within the sections are warm and natural, almost as if a day of muted desert skies was irresistible in Frankenthaler's memory.

Other works suggest a touch of playfulness in Frankenthaler.

``Lot's Wife,'' a triptych lithograph, almost 10-feet tall, was so named because the vertical composition reminded the artist of a pillar of stone. When the work was in the proofing stage, the artist was tempted to change it but was reminded of Lot's wife, who looked back at the burning city of Sodom and was transformed into a pillar of salt.

For the marvel of sheer texture, her woodcut ``Savage Breeze'' was done with eight mahogany plywood blocks printed on Nepalese handmade paper. Two thin meandering white lines at the left lend wispy fragility to the composition. But it is the almost fabriclike quality, as if the eye is seeing through cheesecloth on a summer's day, that heightens the power here.

CENTRAL to the exhibit is Frankenthaler's massive three-paneled bronze screen named ``Gateway.'' Measuring almost 7-feet tall by 9-feet wide, the screen (one of 12) is made of irregular cast-bronze framing shaped by Frankenthaler to become in essence a sculpture around three vertical prints.

To stretch an analogy, ``Gateway'' is like a one-woman circus with the totality of Frankenthaler's vision, skills, and determination on display here in the drama of one controlled performance. She is juggler of images, mistress of ceremonies, purveyor of multiple techniques, designer of costumes and color, and an acrobat with superb timing, balance, and poise.

Frankenthaler is said to have worked for three years on the prints alone. They incorporate the techniques of aquatint, etching, relief painting, and stencil in 28 colors, and have been printed on handmade papers. The bronze frames took six years of work.

Again, the forms on the prints are abstract, positioned on an orange-brown background with huge twisted brushstrokes in one and splashes of blue islands in another. On the reverse side of the screen, the panels are like a bubbling cauldron of mottled dark blues and blacks. Parts of the vertical framing have been painted with a reddish ammonium chloride. At the base of the panel are craggy, twisted horizontal slabs of bronze.

* `Helen Frankenthaler Prints' continues at the MFA until March 13. On Jan. 23 at 3 p.m. at the MFA, Frankenthaler is the featured speaker in a ``Conversation with the Artist,'' free to the public. The exhibition will be on display at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati April 8 through June 17.

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