Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Serendipity and Vitality

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Serendipity and Vitality

Article excerpt

Shared subject matter and the space to make comparisons lightly create a visually convincing experience, says Alexander Massouras.

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.

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. …

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