Woodcuts. Most of the time, they’re difficult. Rigid. Fiddly. A bit like me on my morning commute. But it turns out, they can be much more than that. They can be spontaneous, vast, and colourful. This enlightening exhibition shows exactly how.
Helen Frankenthaler is best understood as one of the great American abstract expressionists alongside Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still et al. First and foremost a painter, Frankenthaler was hesitant to try out woodcuts or printmaking. But when she eventually embraced them, boy, did she do bits. She even invented her own lingo: ‘guzzying’ is the great word she coined to refer to the distressing of wood.
This retrospective of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts shows just how committed she was to her craft. Her work is fluid, soft and in respectful dialogue with the organic structures of the wood. The material becomes almost bodily: colour highlights the grooves in the bark like veins on skin, speckled with moles. From the large expanses of royal azure in ‘Freefall’ to the jigsaw blocks of ‘Savage Breeze’, her works are daring and feel as gestural as paint on canvas. They incorporate vegetable oils, mulberry juice, Japanese gampi paper and paper pulp. Poor Dürer would be turning in his grave.
Crowning the exhibition are three versions of Frankenthaler’s woodcut masterpiece ‘Madame Butterfly’. The final work took her two years to complete, even though she wanted it to look like it was made all at once, and resembles a sort of uterus-shaped splodge on slabs of shed. Make of that what you will.
It seems like the exhibition ends there, but if you walk under the high-ceilinged glares of the gallery’s old masters, you’ll find one of Frankenthaler’s paintings next to her impressionist predecessor, Monet. It’s useful to put her practice in context, but it would have been more useful if we were treated to some earlier woodcuts, to acknowledge just how trailblazing her practice was.
But that’s only a marginal footnote, because Frankenthaler’s work really does speak for itself. The exhibition shows her as an innovator and a radical – but she’s never rash. Everything here is methodical and thought out, like a carefully calculated disruption of a medium that stood stiff for so long.