Question: Helen Frankenthaler and the influence of Japanese art and culture

Image 1: Robert Motherwell, Automatism A 1966, lithograph. NGA 84.2970 © Dedalus Foundation, Inc. VAGA/Copyright Agency
Image 2 Helen Frankenthaler, Other generations 1957, oil on canvas. NGA 73.330  © Helen Frankenthaler
Image 3: Sam Francis, Turn 1972, screenprint. NGA 73.993 © Sam Francis. ARS/Copyright Agency

Helen Frankenthaler emerged in the New York art scene during the 1950s. From the beginning, her approach to painting was both confident and personalised and she quickly affirmed her position within the second generation of Abstract Expressionism. Like so many of the second-generation abstract painters Frankenthaler drew inspiration from the first – a group that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky to name a few. Often contradictory, Frankenthaler regularly made references to the figure and the landscape in her distinct style of abstraction. Critic, Barbara Rose aptly noted the artist’s early encounter with the work of Pollock provided Frankenthaler with a point of departure from which she could develop her own visual language.

‘Frankenthaler assimilated through Pollock an understanding of automatism, although because she is hardly a theoretician, she may not have called it that’.[i]

Automatism was a framework used by post-war American abstract painters – a meditative process by which the free and unconscious mind is granted control in the studio. The gestural application of paint found in Abstract Expressionism is achieved through spontaneous flicks, stains and splashes and is credited to the influence of Zen Buddhist practice that swept across the country. Noted in the 2016 exhibition catalogue East and Beyond: Helen Frankenthaler and her contemporaries curated by Amy N. Worthen the principles of Zen appealed to artists of the period because it offered a system to gain access to individual expression. On the topic Lanier Graham wrote.

 ‘There were many degrees of Zen influence, some superficial, some deep. Some were only formal influences. Some did not go beyond a fascination with the artistic potential of spontaneous brush-strokes to uncover the philosophy which animates this kind of brushwork’.[ii]

It is difficult to peacefully locate Frankenthaler within one of these classifiers. While she has been quoted to deny the influence of Zen and reject public perceptions of what she termed “oriental-oriented”[iii] the formal influence of Japanese art and culture ricochets throughout her career. One can confidently speculate that Frankenthaler did assimilate a Zen calligraphy style and technique into her painting, however, it most likely arrived through the formal examination of works created by other American artists such as Robert Motherwell (married 1958-1971) and Sam Francis – both of whom were engaged in Zen teachings. Although Frankenthaler denies comparison to her peers in this manner, the artist’s articulation of her studio methodology draws striking likenesses to Zen philosophy.

“One prepares, brining all one’s weight and gracefulness and knowledge to bear: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically. And often there’s a moment when all frequencies are right and it hits. But in making a picture, very often from the “hitting point” on, you can pursue that moment and follow it with a whole future aesthetic vocabulary.”[iv]

Frankenthaler’s discontent with the notion that Japanese art and culture influenced her practice is a baffling prospect while taking into consideration her volume of works on paper. Frankenthaler produced her first woodcut East and Beyond in 1973 at ULAE with the aid of Tanya Grosman. Considered a breakthrough work due to its colour proficiency with a jigsaw block technique, the abstract image focusses attention to edges of the frame due to the large void that hovers at its centre. While critical comparisons have been made to Edvard Munch’s use of the same process, author John Yau contemplates the implication of Frankenthaler’s title.

‘…the artist is calling attention to her frank desire to go beyond what she knows about Asian art and philosophy, and enter a territory all her own’.[v]

What did Frankenthaler ‘know’ about Japanese art and philosophy? The complexity of her position is entangled in the historicised trajectory of modernism at large: a European and North American desire to create a visual language for the future, often stylistically motivated by other cultures around the world. Continuing a trajectory to break new ground Frankenthaler would go on to work with Kenneth Tyler at his workshop Tyler Graphics Ltd. Here, they would spend three years (1995-1998) producing the highly innovative Tales of Genjii series. Through new approaches to the traditional woodcut technique Tyler facilitated Frankenthaler’s desire to communicate a ‘painterly resonance’ in print. A serene quality that they ultimately achieved through the aid and support of the workshop printer Yasuyuki Shibata, ukiyo-e trained Japanese carver. Continuously adapting the thickness of their paper stock and density of Frankenthaler’s ink the team would achieve a painterly effect through layered washes of transparent colour.[vi] Critics such as Richard S. Field relished the aesthetic achievements Frankenthaler’s newly found ‘territory’.

‘I don’t think the issues were whether there were American or Japanese artists who used the medium, who used it for color, and/or who were influenced aesthetically or technically. For me the issue is what Frankenthaler did with it … she rarefied color something not unlike her other work. It was that notion of which I was most please, to be honest, not those other kinds of pronouncements … This was something really original … it was optical, it floated in its own space, and made an entirely new kind of contact with the viewer.’[vii]

While Field does acknowledge a known dialogue between Japan and North America during the post-war period his criticism falls within the formal capabilities of colour for optical effect.  This pacified delineation between ‘new’ and ‘old’ aesthetics is a complicated position to encounter and reconsider Frankenthaler’s practice in the contemporary. 

To compare Frankenthaler’s print Tales of Genji IV to Genji-e, a six-panel screen from the Edo Period, Japan we can distinctly witness the artist’s integration of representational landscape techniques; the environment within each frame is divided vertically to create the illusion of depth – this is achieved through a stacked orientation of the foreground, middle ground and background for optical effect. The colour schematic of Tales of Genji IV is also comparative to a Central Asian ikat textile where the dyeing technique creates a blurred cloud effect like Frankenthaler’s washes.[viii]

Image 1: Helen Frankenthaler, Tales of Genji IV 1998, woodcut. NGA 2002.1.81.3 © Helen Frankenthaler
Image 2: Edo period (1603 – 1868), Genji-e six panel screen 1760, paintings, ink colour and gold on paper. NGA 2014.2627
mage 3: probably Ferghana Velley, Uzbekistan, Wall hanging [pardah], late 19th – early 20th century. Silk, printed cotton lining; warp ikat. NGA 2008.226

Perhaps the most significant quality of the series is that the title derives from a work of Japanese literature published in the early 11th century called ‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu. The fictional reference connects with Frankenthaler’s broader interests in the topics of emotion, poetry, beauty and nature that all feature throughout the novel. In addition to critical modernist perspectives on colour and sensation, historical accounts often refer to Frankenthaler’s admiration for the surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983) for visual context. It is important to note, however, that the Spanish painter, sculpture and printmaker also drew upon subjects derived from Japanese and Chinese art and culture.

Image 1: Helen Frankenthaler, Tales of Genji III, 1995. NGA 2002.1.80.6 © Helen Frankenthaler
Image 2: Joan Miró, A toute epreuve [Proof against all] additional suite on Japon nacré[37],1958. NGA 83.3663.B.37

The impetus of this first round text is not to diminish the quality of Frankenthaler’s practice instead it aims to begin discussions around the surface of North American and European art history narratives.  It is important to continuously re-evaluate our perspective and question the creative lineages which have been drawn. I would fiercely challenge Karen Wilkin’s perception that ‘Frankenthaler has been a maker, not a finder of pictures.’[viii]  While she may have chosen to discount the influence of Japanese visual culture upon her practice the preliminary formal evidence is contradictory. These propositions enable meaningful investigation into what we may now consider thresholds between admiration, influence or appropriation and whether it is intentional or not.

Anja Loughhead
Assistant Curator Kenneth Tyler Collection

[i] Helen Frankenthaler Prints: 1961-1979, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980, p.15

[ii] East and Beyond: Helen Frankenthaler and her contemporaries, Des Moines Art Center, 2016. pg. 2

[iii] Helen Frankenthaler Prints: 1961-1979, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980, p.19

[iv] Helen Frankenthaler Prints: 1961-1979, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980, p.19

[v] East and Beyond: Helen Frankenthaler and her contemporaries, Des Moines Art Center, 2016. pg. 8

[vi] Against the gain: the woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005.

[vii] East and Beyond: Helen Frankenthaler and her contemporaries, Des Moines Art Center, 2016. pg. 10

[viii] Personal correspondence with Carol Cains, Senior Curator Asian Art, NGA. Received 17 August 2020

[viii] Frankenthaler: works on paper 1949-1984, George Braziller, Inc and the International Exhibitions Foundation, New York, 1984. p.28

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