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Framer's Intent
Hanna Chung
September 2002 | A review of Helen FrankenthalerUs woodwork at the YUAG.

 As the school year starts off at a fervid pace, few freshmen find the luxury to rest and meditate on the subtler points of aesthetics in the Yale University Art Gallery. The Art Gallery is among a number of the resources which, originally marveled at when freshly advertised within viewbooks, compete poorly for attention of the incoming class when buried amongst other new opportunities. It is a pity, then, that most freshmen will not encounter the exhibit, “Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts,” displayed in the Yale University Art Gallery only until September 8th of 2002. The exhibit features a collection of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcut prints from the last two decades, which span from being expressionistic to abstract and reductionist. It is a showcase in innovative technique and masterful communication by nuance of color and layout. Featured with a disturbing statement about the artistic process by Frankenthaler and her commentator, Judith Goldman, the display is sure to provoke much inquiry and insight in the viewer on the essential requirements of good art and the role of technique in achieving these requirements.

At first glance, the exhibition of about twenty-three prints and several wood blocks seemed hardly interpretable. The deceptively simplistic jigsaw puzzle-like prints that assailed me first struck with their remarkable resemblance to the rough crayon coloring book exercises of my childhood. Walking further, I discovered a motley collection of what appeared to be berry juice, conscientiously dripped on an unassuming piece of paper; a few Rothko-esque washes of color realized with wood grain imperfections, and a gigantic mass of blue paint, which curiously reminded me of a diagram of a plant cell in my biology textbook.

At a loss whether to trust my immediate impressions, I returned the next day, set on a second, closer viewing. While a few works remained to me as puzzling and uninspiring as ever, others began to radiate with hidden meaning. Freefall, once the bulging plant cell, transformed to become an unending gradient depth of blue, and with that transformation, for the first time, the title made sense. Even in the baffling Tale of Genji I, with blurred, abstracted shapes that suggested to me anything but the precise courtly Japanese novel for which it is named, a method emerged from the madness. I had seen those greens, reds, and dark inky blues before— in the famous 11th century painting of Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the novel, on the folds of her dress. The japonisme continued with The Madame Butterfly, Frankenthaler’s greatest masterpiece thus far. Its delicate fade, iridescent purples, greens and pearly whites, and fantastic splash-like layout of the prints simultaneously call to mind the delicate pathos of the tragic tale, the exotic orientalism of the silky colors, and the flourish of Puccini’s opera.

Much inspired by this new revelation, I decided to do some further reading in Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, a book by Judith Goldman on display in the exhibit. However, reading the book left me disillusioned again. “To do what she did not know she wanted to do— that was the course of Savage Breeze; it is also an accurate description of the artist’s working process,” said Goldman, echoing the sentiments of a preceding quote by Frankenthaler. The commentaries of Frankenthaler’s works provided in the books mentioned very little of the intent I imagined Frankenthaler to have captured in her prints. On the contrary, the book praised her mercurial whims as artistically inspired, and trumpeted the glorious randomness of her mistakes. Nothing was said about the sublime meanings I had thought the prints to have so ingeniously conveyed; I was dumb-struck with the horror that perhaps I had only imagined the subtleties.

I left the gallery moved yet greatly dissatisfied. Though I was reluctant to declare the works of Frankenthaler as great art, they had certainly served a purpose in raising questions. Must an artist fully intend the effects of her art, or is the sole criterion of great art that it removes the viewer from mundanity, regardless of whether that effect was intended by the artist? Experiencing the beauty in these prints, I could not deny their aesthetic potential, but the beauty in the prints vanished when the beauty of a human mind at work within was taken from them. When evaluating art, one wishes to avoid both extremes— that of cherishing a complete accident because an observer graciously construed meaning in it, and that of exhibiting a child’s scrawls simply to reward his heartfelt intentions. Accepting the former implies that everything that inspires, from nature to the most hackneyed trivialities, is “art”— the word becomes meaningless as it loses its special distinction. Accepting the latter implies that art need no longer be a communication of beauty— again, the word loses an essential part of its meaning as it comes to incorporate every act that happens to have intent. Therefore, the genius of art as artifice must reside in the recognition of beauty of a creative human mind.

It follows from the above conclusion that when we admire art, however abstract the work may be, we are admiring some aspect of ourselves— we recognize a shared human element between the creator and the observer. How utterly offensive it is, then, that Frankenthaler credits the great impact of her work to pure accident. Her words cannot be taken lightly, for when an artist makes such statements about her art it assaults the very conception of our humanity. Instead of the joy of encountering another creative mind, one is thrust into an isolation in which one is told that every man is an island. Furthermore, when one is asked to admire the advertised fact that the artist lacked any conscious direction in her creation, one is concurrently asked to embrace a representation of human inspiration that is mindless and will-less.

Giving Frankenthaler the benefit of the doubt, the statements in Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts probably did not accurately reflect the actual process of the artist. Her painstaking honing of technique betrays that though she may not have known how to achieve the effect she desired, she had an ideal in mind. Frankenthaler’s acute sense of final vision and discrimination is evident by the sheer number of drafts expended before her final product, and her knack of creating titles that accurately emphasize the most dominating, compelling artistic elements within her prints. Perhaps Frankenthaler had aimed to accentuate that her artistic process was a legitimate, intuited one devoid of conscious constraints. Truly, art is not a rationalized process in which the artist first comes up with a philosophical statement then mechanically translates the meaning of it into a prescribed medium. At the same time, however, art cannot be devoid of any intent or driving impetus. It is in this respect that the random decision (to use an accidentally chipped wood block) in Savage Breeze fails, because the decision was not made in pursuit of a particular aesthetic meaning, while the spontaneity of Madame Butterfly is a wild success that intensifies a central thesis in the print— the message of a free, poetic spirit of hope and the evanescence of that hope in the tragedy that follows.

More than for the collective merit of the works themselves, Frankenthaler’s exhibit has much to offer in the questions that it raises for the freshmen who find a rare moment for reflection in the art gallery during the first week of school. This article is only an introduction and an exhortation to explore — for art is that intensely intimate experience shared with all, yet accessed only firsthand.


Hanna Chung is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College

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