The show of the season, if not the year, is a sequence of 36 visions so overwhelmingly beautiful at the Dulwich Picture Gallery that you want to stay there all day. It’s like being surrounded by an ever-changing song. Ostensibly abstract, each work nonetheless touches on the sublime infinity of nature – snowy pines and green glades, early spring and deep fall, the curvy complexities of late cheekbones suspended in volumes of pale morning light.
Their dazzling brilliance is a constant feature of the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), one of the great pioneers of post-war American abstraction. Yet another astonishment at Dulwich is that they are not paintings at all; not canvases stained with his signature color washes, but something entirely different – terrifically large woodcuts.
Free fall (1993) envelops you from the entrance: a brilliant blue light, stratospheric, slightly tilted to the sides as if to imitate the way the eye sees the world. The darkness at the bottom suggests some sort of ground, or at least a measure of depth, its ripples traced in brilliant yellow as if dawn was rising elsewhere. But what’s above and what’s below (and even what’s where) are complicated by streaks of ink floating freely in a vacuum.
Twelve different colors were used to make this print, and 21 wood blocks. This is one of Frankenthaler’s greatest feats, standing over six feet tall. But there isn’t the slightest hint of how it was born, unless you look deep into its bulky surface and notice microscopic impressions of the wood grain. It is the optical glory, and not the medium, that overwhelms.
Frankenthaler rose to fame with what is variously called color field painting or post-painter abstraction. The daughter of a New York Supreme Court justice, educated on the Upper East Side, she and her husband, painter Robert Motherwell, were jealously known as the Golden Couple. Her early inspirations included Jackson Pollock, but she left behind the bombast of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s. Her own breakthrough, followed by painters such as Morris Louis, was to brush or pour diluted paint. turpentine directly into the raw canvas, so that the two become inseparably one. Her compositions were open, partly improvised, and so lyrically graceful that they were too often considered feminine by male critics.
The Dulwich exhibit thankfully feels removed from pointless arguments about whether she really was a feminist – “Looking at my paintings as if they were painted by a woman,” Frankenthaler retorted, “is superficial, a secondary issue “. It begins with the seemingly counterintuitive disavowal of improvisation. What you are seeing is slow, pure, determined, and infinitely hard earned.
The dark purple form in Geisha (2003) seems to glide elegantly over the surface of the paper, like a nude sliding on a sofa, or silk sliding off a body. Four perfectly judged purple discs pin the composition with erotic accents, hints of makeup and chrysanthemums. The exposed grain of the wood ripples everywhere like moving air. It took Frankenthaler a year and 15 separate woodcuts.
At first, she used a jigsaw to carve directly into the wood. But soon, she invented a new technique she called “guzzing,” rubbing the block with sandpaper, dental tools, and even cheese graters to introduce tiny incidents or unexpected smoothness. Cameo, 1980, is as diaphanous as any Whistler or Monet. Bites of light pierce its lavender mists, with the thrill of something like a bird’s wing or a fleeting butterfly. These incidents emerge in the making – ghosts inherent in the process – rather than as incised linear elements. This mysterious potential was surely one of Frankenthaler’s deepest ambitions to revolutionize woodcut.
The only rule is not a rule: that was his slogan. To concern The Clearing (1991), the surface gushing out like sap, or developing the gnarled nerves of an old oak bark, and the image appeals to your sense of touch, as if you can read it as much in Braille as you can apprehend it the look. Frankenthaler worked the surface with wet paste.
Cedar Hill (1983) is intricately speckled all over, in many colors, as if you were gazing through a static drizzle at rust-colored shapes in the distance: drifts of cloud-like hills. Frankenthaler studied ukiyo-e Japanese prints from start to finish, and eventually began working with a master printer in Kyoto. Distance is implied with no perspective here, and the scene flows upward with all the magic of the floating world.
And yet, there is something uniquely American about this show. Grove (1991), unusually graphic with its incised black lines, evokes planetary shapes suspended above a deep darkness, irresistibly reminiscent (to me, anyway) of the large black and white photograph of Ansel Adams Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. And although its title is Japanese maple, the sumptuous deep red, purple and midnight blue landscape from one of Frankenthaler’s last prints, from 2005, takes you directly into the beautiful Connecticut sky in the fall, where the artist had a studio. The grain of the wood is fully exposed, mimicking the mackerel sky at dusk.
More and more, the engravings seem to speak of the wood with which they were made. Nodes are incorporated: becoming suns or whirlpools. The grain spreads out like watered silk. Strange schools of marks float like fish under these underwater ripples, or get tangled up like twigs. Several different proofs of work from Mulberry essence (1977) are presented together, revealing the stages of Frankenthaler’s thought in action like no completed painting ever could. The final impression has both the hues of mulberry juice and the smoky reds of the tree itself.
“A really good picture,” Frankenthaler said, “looks like it happened right away.” There must be a huge contrast between this aesthetic and the inordinate amount of time it took to make these woodcuts. Frankenthaler only worked on four in the 1970s and not much more in the 1980s. And although the Dulwich Picture Gallery gives exactly the right amount of technical data in this beautifully designed exhibition, organized around a film by Short but piercing archives in Frankenthaler’s rotunda talking about his work, it is almost impossible to grasp the complexity of the process.
Which inevitably raises the question of their method: if Frankenthaler could unleash visions of such radiant liberation in painting, then why did she turn to printing? This has its fullest answer in the final gallery. Here are three versions of Madame Papillon (2000): a painting, a trial print and the last great woodcut tribute to Puccini’s immortal opera. Or is it also because of the devastating effect of a butterfly wing, rudimentary in everything but the final imprint. Everything has its summation in this colossal triptych – the color purple speaking of love, the bright sun dissolving in the light, the cross turning to gold as the soft and smoky air drifts into another world, an au- beyond his passions. Once seen, never forgotten.