WILLIAMSTOWN — You could call Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings no-man’s land — and not, thank you, because they were painted by a woman.
It can be hard to identify, in her work, figure versus ground, or whether a passage of color should be read as form. Edges creep. She plops us amid masses of voluptuous tone and smoky mists, all untethered from our understanding of how a picture works — expectations abstract painters worked to shatter in the 1950s, but that we still hold on to. Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, at 83, didn’t relent. She leaves us floundering, gasping.
She was tough. She had to be. A second-generation Abstract Expressionist, she was a woman in a macho world.
“Hysterical,” “extremely nervous,” “romantic, hypersensitive, sulky, and filled with surface,” wrote critic Anne Seeley about Frankenthaler’s paintings in 1960. That “filled with surface” gibe is particularly weird, coming at a time when flatness was the ideal.
Well, then. In retrospect, Seeley’s words more aptly describe Jackson Pollock. Even the surface comment: Pollock used enamels, which stood on the surface, and Frankenthaler’s poured paint soaked into it.
Frankenthaler made art that still tends to be framed as “lyrical” and “beautiful.” We can take those words as gendered, but it’s also true that she made meltingly yummy colors and color combinations.
Two small, pungent exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute, “As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings” and “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts,” present an artist less concerned with beauty than with ramming down walls.
The shows run through Oct. 9 and Sept. 24, respectively.
Oh, there’s beauty here. The incandescent cobalt-over-aqua at the core of “Freefall,” a 6-and-a-half-foot-tall woodcut in “No Rules,” is a ravishing jolt. It’s also the product of tenacity and ridiculous ambition, a 12-color print made from 21 woodblocks on a giant sheet of handmade, hand-dyed paper. Tightrope walk, anyone?
Frankenthaler was no less purposeful as a painter. “As in Nature” examines her lifelong dialogue with landscape. She first used her soak-stain technique in a painting called “Mountains and Sea” (1952), now at the National Gallery of Art. She made it after returning from a trip to Nova Scotia, still in the grip of that landscape. But representation was taboo, and this was no landscape — it was an antic, breathy whorl of color and line.
Frankenthaler’s invention of soak-stain, which involved pouring turpentine-thinned oil paint (and later, watered-down acrylic) on a flat, untreated canvas, opened doors to the next big thing, Color Field painting.
By the mid 1960s, critics decried Color Field as modern art’s death knell. The art-about-art aesthetic championed by critic Clement Greenberg, with whom Frankenthaler had been romantically involved for several years, had grown overripe and vacuous. Color Field gave way to Minimalism and Pop Art.
But Frankenthaler made the problems posed by the flat field of canvas ever fresh. She took familiar old dichotomies like figure and ground — solid and atmosphere is another one, or pigment and raw canvas — and threw them away. Collapsing those contrasts made her work wide open, likely to startle even now.
I can’t resist adding representation and abstraction to that mix. Greenberg would growl. Frankenthaler would resist. But her paintings, with their nature-oriented titles and horizon lines, put us in landscape’s realm.
There are a dozen paintings in “As in Nature,” every one arresting.
Some, like “Milkwood Arcade,” with its brown verticals and indigo puddle at the bottom, invite us to see landscapes. But don’t waste your time searching for leaves and lakes. Frankenthaler’s effects are more visceral, more buzzy and demanding, than pastoral evocations of space. Colors jump and jostle. Forms bristle and deliquesce. Gestures jitter. If this is a landscape, it’s an internal one.
“Off White Square,” at more than 20 feet across, is epically horizontal, with a handy red streak across the middle. Yet long passages of unnatural colors, bubblegum-pink and school-bus-yellow, pull us up. It’s a wrestling match, with purple and green smoke rising where there’s friction.
Then there’s pugnacious, defiant, not at all beautiful “Jockey,” nature-oriented in its palette, with thick blots of Kelly green dripping over squarish brown, dissolving into dyspeptic yellow.
Guest curator Alexandra Schwartz summons Frankenthaler’s taste for romantic, 19th-century landscapes with a brash pairing, made in the early 1990s. The artist, having soaked, stained, seeped, and streaked for 40 years, was revivifying crusty impasto.
The magnificent “Red Shift” seethes, as thick with sky as a Turner. Fuchsia simmers below hot pink studded with percussive blots and dashes of ember red, like a shower of fiery detritus. The white and gray “Barometer” cools all that heat, roiling with thick paint like a Courbet. It could be a heaving sea beneath a stinging blizzard.
“As in Nature” shows us an artist who barreled over boundaries. “No Rules” does the same.
The prints are cunningly inventive. An improvisatory painter, Frankenthaler surprisingly proved to be a print geek. She experimented with lithography and etching, played with monotype — which you’d think would be her niche, with its painterly ease. But woodcuts became her late, great body of work.
Indeed, starting in the 1970s, Frankenthaler revolutionized woodblock printing. The medium had languished after German Expressionism in the 1920s. Hers are nothing like stark German Expressionist prints. Hers breathe with color.
She worked with master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, and her efforts grew increasingly innovative and technically daunting.
The artist brazenly leaves the bottom third of the paper naked in “Essence Mulberry.” Above that, columns of red (made with mulberries) seep into a central fall of steel blue. The colors vaporize and overlap, as they often do in her paintings. She distressed the wood — she called it “guzzying” — adding calligraphic flourishes and cryptic blots of orange, blue, and pink.
For the “Tales of Genji” series, named after the Japanese literary epic, she utilized ukiyo-e, the Japanese style of woodcut that enlists artisans to execute an artist’s design. These are painterly and devilish. The wood grain evident in “Tales of the Genji II” is not grain at all, but inked on.
Toward the end of her life, Frankenthaler largely gave up painting for woodcuts. She made her last print in 2009. “Weeping Crabapple” has, in places, the granular quality of an aquatint, the loose, drawn gestures of a lithograph. It has a pink polka-dot grid that looks printed from the bottom of a bath mat, and gorgeous sweeps of red, white, and ocher pigment. You’d never guess it was a woodcut.
Forget beauty. Frankenthaler was fearless.
AS IN NATURE: HELEN FRANKENTHALER PAINTINGS
NO RULES: HELEN FRANKENTHALER WOODCUTS
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Oct. 9 and Sept. 24, respectively. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.eduCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.