In Review

Helen Frankenthaler: Radical Beaut – this may be ‘the show of the season’

What the critics are saying about this Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition of 36 finished woodcut prints

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was “one of the great postwar abstract painters”, said Ben Luke in the London Evening Standard. In the 1950s, she was one of the pioneers of a style that came to be known as “colour field painting”.

It built on the achievements of the abstract expressionists; but where works by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were totemic and grandiose, Frankenthaler’s were composed of “watery stains, organic arcs and glowing blocks of colour”.

Her paintings earned her great renown, yet in 1973, she started experimenting with a very different medium: woodcuts, a discipline that, unlike painting, involves a “rigid, laborious process and linear imagery”: prints must be transferred from heavy blocks of wood directly onto paper, requiring great physical effort and precision.

For an artist as instinctive and poetic as Frankenthaler, the switch seemed almost “perverse”. Yet as this exhibition of 36 finished woodcut prints (and various preparatory experiments) shows, it produced some “extraordinarily bold, innovative” images. Frankenthaler revolutionised a centuries-old tradition to create some sublime work. This show is profoundly “luminous and illuminating”.

For anyone interested in woodcutting, there is “much to delve into” here, said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. A print called Essence Mulberry, for instance, is accompanied by half a dozen trial proofs that reveal much about Frankenthaler’s working methods. Yet for all the “crazy complexity” her practice entailed, the pictures themselves are under­whelming.

Her earliest woodcut, 1973’s East and Beyond, is a “blob of beige ringed with slivers of black, blue, red and green” that “delivers almost nothing in the way of a memorable image”. Freefall (1993) is over six feet high – “a big drench of blue framed with jagged black shapes”, made from 21 wood blocks. Pretty as they are, these works are “simply not worth the enormous communal effort that went into producing them”.

I disagree entirely, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. The show is a sequence of 36 visions of such “overwhelming beauty” that “the urge is to remain there all day. It is like being surrounded by some ever-changing song.” The prints are abstract, but evoke nature.

Best of all are the three versions of Madame Butterfly (2000) – a painting, a trial print and the final woodcut – which by turns evoke “the bright Sun dissolving into light”, a haze of “smoky air” and “an afterlife beyond the passions of this one”. Make no mistake: this may be “the show of the season”.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020-8693 5254, dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk). Until 18 April

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