I had taken about 15 steps into the Chicago Art Institute's spring exhibit, "Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium," when I heard what I dreaded I would.
"This looks like something a five-year-old made," an older man muttered to his wife.
It is a comment often heard in abstract expressionist shows, made by people who don't know what they're doing there. It does, however, put in laymen's terms an argument tackled by many aesthetic philosophers: Can abstract art measure up to the far more popular works of Impressionism or the Renaissance? Frankenthaler's work, as presented by the Art Institute, is far from juvenile. And the show rejuvenates an abstract expressionist's efforts to strain deep emotion through a delicate veil of color.
Helen Frankenthaler was born in 1928, the daughter of a New York State Supreme Court judge and a German immigrant. She grew up on the Upper East Side. She was a Jewish social conservative, friends with Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, but she was not necessarily politically aware. Joseph Epstein wrote that in 1991, while he was at a Washington, D.C., dinner with Frankenthaler and the Kristols, they were joined by Dick and Lynne Cheney. After the Cheneys left, Frankenthaler commented, "Really smart, Lynne Cheney. But tell me, her husband, what does he do?"
Epstein and the Kristols looked at each other.
"Actually," Epstein said, "he's secretary of defense."
Artists are generally consumed in their own craft, after all, and Frankenthaler was clearly no exception.
She created what are called "color fields," which is exactly what it sounds like. She combined the natural flow of ink with her own idea of movement to make whimsical compositions. First Stone (1961) is the first work presented by the gallery, where primary colors roar from white paper in painterly gestures. It is also the first example of Frankenthaler's use of negative space to guide the eye from white nothingness to energetic movement.
Yellow Span (1968) is an ideal example of how Frankenthaler used certain hues to evoke pleasant
serenity in a color field. A yellow sky rises above what look like blue mountains, with green and orange peeking up from the ground. There is an undeniable quietness to this work, which shows how color can stand on its own to make a statement and mentally affect the viewer.
Frankenthaler's artistic process sometimes involved what Bob Ross would call "happy accidents." When paint swelled over the page it was caught by an underlying sheet of paper. Frankenthaler would take that sheet and be happy with the patterns made and would use it for a second work. Some of her works were born this way, like Free Wheeling (1971), while others were results of labor-intensive work.
Certainly it could seem surprising that she went through such arduous efforts to create something so simple. Lithography, a form of printmaking Frankenthaler used, is hard work that relies on the resistance between grease and water. Frankenthaler would draw an image using greasy materials (a crayon or pencil) on a stone or metal plate. The stone is then chemically treated to establish the area where water goes next and where the greasy drawing is set in the stone. When ink is set, it only attaches to the grease etching. A wet sheet of paper is applied to the surface, and the image is then imprinted on the page.
Frankenthaler would experiment with this process several times before she was content with the results. The final product of Connected by Joy (1969-73) shows three black amoeba-like shapes, each connected by a primary color line, one red, one blue, one yellow. She played with the composition in several working proofs, using aquatint plates and different shades of paper for the background. Each one shows the slightest difference, causing one to contemplate what it was that made Frankenthaler happy with the final result.
The work of art itself, of course, is often taken most seriously by the artist who made it.
"It's all fine," Frankenthaler once wrote to a friend she gave a lithograph to, "but it's upside down!" She was very precise about what was the top and what was the bottom of the painting, something that may seem superfluous in the strange world of abstract expressionism. "As much empty space (when printed) on top as possible, please," she wrote. "Yes, it's still called Brown Moons."
Such an exacting person was bound to get frustrated by the challenges of printmaking. Woodcuts drove her up the wall. They "made me ecstatic, furious, frustrated, ready to give up and ready to solve the problem," she said. Many, however, consider them her best work in printmaking. Savage Breeze (1974) revealed the tense relationship between color and light that Frankenthaler wrestled to convey with carved wood. Frankenthaler's method and conviction would probably be beyond the achievement of a five-year-old.
Aesthetic philosophers have vehemently argued over the question of whether art is subjective or objective—whether it is validated by opinion or factual standards. Sir Roger Scruton forcefully argued the latter in his famed essays on music. But the same question is asked across all artistic mediums: Can the Cramps deliver the same transcendence as Mozart? Does Richard Serra's sculpture equal the craftsmanship of Rodin's? Is the aesthetic value of Jean DuBuffet near the value of Ingres? It depends on whom you ask.
Truth, Kierkegaard said, is subjective. I tend to find the same when looking at art. Frankenthaler's prints evoke tranquility and serenity, frustration and irritability. They intentionally release these emotions from the various work reliefs to the final product, and they were made that way with lithographic skill and knowledge of composition. Notably, they force some of us to move outside our comfort zone of Monet and Michelangelo to question what makes a work of art, art?
Frankenthaler invites us to dive into color, to give weary eyes a rest and float through negative space. The questions her art further begs of its viewers, and the conversation it fuels, makes it a success.