As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings, on view exclusively at the Clark Art Institute July 1–October 9, focuses on nature as a long-standing inspiration for the artist. Like many abstract artists, Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) continually tested the constraints of the genre, at times inserting into her compositions elements of recognizable subject matter. Paintings on loan from the William Louis-Dreyfus Foundation and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation represent the full range of styles and techniques that she explored over five decades of work. While all are primarily abstract, they also contain allusions to landscape, demonstrating how Frankenthaler’s delicate balance between abstraction and a nuanced response to nature and place developed and shifted over time. Frankenthaler once commented, “Anything that has beauty and provides order (rather than chaos or shock alone), anything resolved in a picture (as in nature) gives pleasure—a sense of rightness, as in being one with nature.” The accompanying catalogue also investigates the critical response to Frankenthaler’s work as that of one of the few women working in the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist art scene.
“The natural landscape of the northeastern United States served as a significant source of inspiration for Helen Frankenthaler throughout her career,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director of the Clark. “Exhibition curator Alexandra Schwartz has brought together wonderful examples of Frankenthaler’s work that are particularly relevant to our understanding of her engagement with nature as both subject and inspiration. We look forward to displaying these large, color-drenched canvases in our galleries at the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, whose setting will surely encourage a dialogue between art and nature. We are deeply grateful to the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection and the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, which have lent generously to the exhibition and provided invaluable advice, assistance, and encouragement.”
Schwartz said, “As in Nature examines Frankenthaler’s decades-long engagement with the tradition of landscape painting, within the context of her extraordinary career. The exhibition and catalogue consider the critical reception of her work, particularly as a pioneering woman artist.”
Frankenthaler experimented tirelessly in her painting, always seeking to develop new styles, materials, and techniques. She sometimes alluded to nature directly, through titles such as Milkwood Arcade (1963) that refer to natural themes or even specific places, and sometimes indirectly, through colors, forms, and textures. Though trained in abstraction at the Dalton School, Bennington College, and briefly with the painter Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts, she sometimes sketched outdoors, working directly from the landscape. She was an enthusiastic student of the history of art, frequently quoting historical paintings by artists such as Gustave Courbet and J. M. W. Turner, as in Barometer (1992), or traditional artistic genres, especially landscape painting.
Helen Frankenthaler maintained a lifelong connection to Bennington College, located just twenty minutes from Williamstown, and established numerous connections to the local region. During the 1979–80 academic year, Frankenthaler was part of the Williams College Artist-in-Residence Program. At the culmination of her tenure, the Clark presented and toured a comprehensive exhibition of her prints, curated by Thomas Krens, then director of the Artist-in-Residence Program and incoming director of the Williams College Museum of Art. The Clark renews its association with the artist this summer through two exhibitions: in addition to As in Nature, the Institute presents No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts (July 1–September 24), which explores the artist’s inventive and groundbreaking approach to the woodcut over four decades of her career. No Rules is presented in the Eugene V. Thaw Gallery in the Manton Research Center.