Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and J. M. W. Turner

Turner Contemporary in Margate allows visually convincing comparisons in the work of two major artists, finds Alexander Massouras

January 30, 2014

Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and J. M. W. Turner
Turner Contemporary, Margate until 11 May
96pp catalogue with an essay by the curator, James Hamilton

Helen Frankenthaler and J. M. W. Turner are not an obvious pairing, but the two painters – from 20th-century New York and 18th- and 19th-century Britain – were both slightly anomalous in their contexts. It is precisely this shared untimeliness that Turner Contemporary’s new exhibition highlights.

Making Painting is the first substantial opportunity to see Frankenthaler’s work in a British public gallery for 45 years. (The last was at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1969.) Nor is she well represented in many UK public collections, which contain only seven of her paintings; the Tate owns merely a selection of prints. One hopes that this exhibition will begin to correct Frankenthaler’s startling absence from British histories of 20th-century art.

The exhibition has been ambitiously sourced, with loans from all over Britain and North America; one Frankenthaler even comes from the Detroit Institute of Art, whose collection has been scrutinised as a possible asset in tackling the city’s bankruptcy. The first room is a magnificent assembly of large canvases painted by Frankenthaler in the 1960s, shown alongside two smaller, earlier paintings: New Jersey Landscape (1952) and River (1953). In the second room, a 3m-long Turner, Thomson’s Aeolian Harp (1809), has been brought down from Manchester, where it must leave quite a gap on the wall. Indeed, given the vastness of many of these canvases, getting them to Margate is itself no modest achievement. By allowing the two artists mostly to occupy their own rooms, the exhibition also makes its comparisons lightly.

The game of ‘snap’ this type of exhibition often makes irresistible can also yield more playful, circumstantial analogies

There are plenty of historical reasons why Turner and Frankenthaler can be compared. The artists shared their subject: landscapes by water, often so abstract as to become chaotic, and often titled to reference mythology, emphasising their primordial quality. In 1816 William Hazlitt called Turner’s paintings “pictures of the elements of air, earth and water”, depicting a moment when “waters are separated from the dry land, and light from darkness”. This sounds about right for Frankenthaler, too. The untreated canvas visible in many of her paintings gives them a flat, matt, porous quality: from a distance they look like huge lithography stones. This dryness of support makes the fluidity of her paintings all the more striking.

The game of “snap” this type of exhibition often makes irresistible can also yield more playful, circumstantial analogies. Critics played formative roles in both artists’ careers. In Turner’s case, the younger John Ruskin was a vociferous advocate; in Frankenthaler’s case, it was the older Clement Greenberg, who also became her lover. And Britain at the height of the Industrial Revolution was perhaps not so very ideologically distant, either, from America at the height of the Cold War.

In both contexts, trade, capital and productivity became articles of faith, and two such prolific artists – factories in and of themselves – reflect that sense of optimism and materialist belief. Their attraction to nature equally suggests retreat from the prevailing heady urbanisation of 19th-century London and mid-20th-century New York; to understand why artists based in dense, colossal cities might romanticise nature requires little imagination. Turner’s retreat was perhaps less complete: steam – and all the mechanisation steam implies – lurks in his landscapes, whereas Frankenthaler’s escape is a purer, more bucolic one, giving rise to paintings with titles such as Lush Spring (1975).

At various points in the exhibition’s wall texts and catalogue, viewers are encouraged to use their eyes and focus on more material and sensory analogies between the two artists’ use of paint as much as on any art-historical links. This perspective perhaps informs the Making Painting title of the exhibition, whose implications of continuity nod also to the “unfinished” quality of some of the work, left as a playground for the beholder’s imagination. If one momentarily accepts the comparison on these strict, formalist terms, it is clear that Turner and Frankenthaler did indeed share a looseness in their handling of paint. This often amounted to a willingness to let the medium itself determine its form. Turner’s violent collisions of thick paint with coarsely woven linen match Frankenthaler’s bleeding of pigments into the untreated canvas – in each case, the paint finds its own accidental form, facilitated rather than directed by the artist.

Faith in serendipity took the two artists in slightly different directions, however: Turner’s watercolours and oils remained quite separate until very late on, and his oil paint was mostly thick and dry, scumbled rather than dribbled on to the canvas. Frankenthaler’s paintings are much closer to Turner’s watercolours than to his oils; in terms of painting alone, the liquidity of her marks brings her as close to Whistler as it does to Turner. If Turner’s pigment sits on the surface of the canvas, Frankenthaler’s permeates and stains the canvas itself.

Connections and comparisons between British and American movements recur throughout 20th-century art and its criticism. Sometimes the two artistic traditions are indeed very intricately bound: British and American Pop movements were so close, for example, that they might legitimately be thought of as two aspects of the same phenomenon. New York painting of the 1950s and 1960s had strong connections to Britain, although with 20th- rather than 19th-century British art. Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting are normally aligned with activity at St Ives, at the opposite corner of the south coast from Margate, which Mark Tobey, Mark Rothko and Greenberg all visited. It is therefore with painters like Patrick Heron or Peter Lanyon that we might typically expect to see Frankenthaler compared. A direct connection with Turner becomes concrete only through a brief wormhole of art history: a Turner exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966 is perhaps the most likely moment if we want to claim an actual Turner influence on Frankenthaler. Nevertheless, the intriguing leap staged by this exhibition ends up being visually convincing, and enjoyable too.

Making Painting is overall a joyous exhibition, full of vitality (both in the work, and in some curiously yellow walls). It presents two rare opportunities: to see Frankenthaler in depth, and to experience a selection of major Turners on home turf, as well as in his eponymous gallery. If the weather is unsettled, a stroll along Margate’s seafront after seeing the exhibition might also make life imitate art.

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