“They’re Astounding”: The Radical Beauty of Helen Frankenthaler’s Woodcuts

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Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000. 102 colour woodcut© 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS , London / Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA

The legendary artist and pioneer of abstract expressionism is being celebrated in a new London exhibition, which will spotlight a selection of her rare and previously unseen works

Helen Frankenthaler was just 23 when she was thrust into the centre of the New York art scene. It was the autumn of 1952, and the Manhattan-born painter had debuted her now-renowned oil painting Mountains and Sea – an abstract amalgamation of colour inspired by the seaswept cliffs of Nova Scotia. The work was a trailblazing debut for Frankenthaler, and instantly placed her at the forefront of America‘s abstract expressionist movement.

A varied and formidable career would unfold over the next six decades. During that time, Frankenthaler became known for her paintings of vast amorphic landscapes, created with fluid colour washes and illusory shapes. The compositions were defined by their sense of effortless spontaneity – an aesthetic signature the artist would come to be known for, despite her careful and controlled methods. “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once,” Frankenthaler once said. “It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks laboured and overworked ... there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me.”

But painting wasn’t the artist’s only creative output. Although her colourful canvases may have attracted the most attention, she also experimented with a number of other tools and mediums. One of these was woodcutting, a challenging printmaking technique involving carved wood, which Frankenthaler would come to master and pioneer. “She saw herself as a painter, but she kept going back to printing,” says Jane Findlay, head of programme and engagement at Dulwich Picture Gallery. “I think it really nourished her.”

Frankenthaler’s woodcutting is the subject of a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which opens today. The show, titled Radical Beauty, comes ten years after the artist’s death, and is her first major print retrospective to be shown in the UK. “I was just really passionate about this story and this collection of work,” says Findlay, who curated the exhibit. “The woodcuts are really unknown in this country, so I really wanted to bring them to a UK audience for the first time. But also because they’re astounding – technically they’re so complex and intricate, but they look vibrant and spontaneous. You can learn a lot about her as an artist by the way she approaches her woodcuts.”

The show is arranged thematically, with 38 woodcuts on display spanning from 1973 to 2009. It will explore Frankenthaler’s fearless approach to art: her willingness to make mistakes, her embrace of ambiguity, and her careful balance between spontaneity and control. “These themes are all central principles to her wider work, and why she’s so compelling as an artist,” says Findlay. She adds that Frankenthaler felt like the perfect fit for the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current programming schedule, which aims to spotlight “trailblazers, and people who pushed things forward” for others. “Frankenthaler really fits that bill. She opened many doors for other artists as well as herself.”

Findlay also hopes that the show will introduce a new generation to Frankenthaler’s “exceptional” work. Although celebrated in her lifetime, her success was partly disrupted by her gender, with some 20th-century critics dismissing her art as too feminine, decorative and twee. For Findlay, this show is an opportunity to overwrite this past, but also to celebrate the underlying power of Frankenthaler’s aesthetically pleasing approach. Her work may be beautiful, but – as the exhibition’s title suggests – that doesn’t mean it can’t still be radical. “Frankenthaler pushed boundaries and took risks and asked questions,” Findlay concludes. “It’s why her work feels really fresh. It’s decades-old but still feels like it could have been made this year. She could touch any generation.”

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beauty runs at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery from 15 September 2021 – 18 April 2022.