American painter Helen Frankenthaler, elected an Honorary Royal Academician just months before she died in December 2011, has been curiously overlooked by the art establishment, despite creating a significant body of work and contributing to the development of Abstract Expressionism. A new exhibition at Margate's Turner Contemporary seeks to redress this inattention with the first airing of her work in a British public gallery since 1969.
Helen Frankenthaler, 'Overture'. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
It is, however, Frankenthaler with a twist. Twenty-four of her paintings are shown alongside 33 works (oils and watercolours) by JMW Turner. Two artists separated by continent, gender, style and history are brought together on the wonderfully simple premise that their handling of paint is surprisingly similar. Pairing modern and contemporary artists with old masters in this way is a curatorial trend that is growing - in 2011 Dulwich Picture Gallery paired Twombly and Poussin, and works by Rembrandt and Auerbach were shown at Ordovas on Savile Row last year, before travelling to the Rijksmuseum.
Curator James Hamilton’s key goal for this exhibition is to get his viewers to think about the process of painting, to "throw off the burden of art history" and call a painter a painter.
JMW Turner, 'Foot of St. Gothard', c.1842 Watercolour on paper. City Art Gallery, Leeds. The Bridgeman Art Library
Looking for process in Frankenthaler’s works is easy enough. The way she combines colours and pushes them around a canvas is as much the subject of her works as the landscapes she seeks to represent. She was famous for using unfixed canvases which meant that paint seeped in quickly and had to be manipulated at speed. However, Hamilton argues that this act, of driving paint around a canvas in an experimental mode of discovery, is evidenced in Turner’s works too. You see it particularly in his ‘unexhibitable works’; those that looked half-finished by the standards of the time but contain an evocative rawness.
Even before you enter the galleries this notion of ‘painterliness’ is pushed into focus. As you mount the stairs, a photograpraph of Frankenthaler at work looms over you. Poised on all fours on top of a canvas, Frankenthaler tilts her body and raises one knee to get the brush in just the right place, a look of calm concentration on her face. The first gallery includes works only by Frankenthaler. It introduces her preoccupation with landscape by way of early works from the 1950s and ’60s.
JMW Turner, 'The Evening Star', 1830. Oil on canvas, © The National Gallery, London. Turner Bequest, 1856
The next gallery is entered via a door, a door that you actually have to open. The act chimes nicely with the boundary you’re about to cross as you step into the area devoted to Turner works. Hanging in gilt frames, on bright canary yellow walls, these works seem in such stark contrast to Frankenthaler's that at this point you’d be forgiven for wondering how Hamilton is going to pull it off. Especially as you gaze at tightly constructed, heavily picturesque works like Thompson’s Aeolian Harp (1809). But by the end of the room you encounter the promised ‘unfinished’ or ‘abstract’ works and looking at The Evening Star (1830), you start to believe that Turner really was an abstract expressionist caught in the wrong century.
Helen Frankenthaler, 'Burnt Norton'. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Turning out of that space, away from Turner’s seaside scenes, you find yourself face-to-face with Frankenthaler’s crisp white Barometer (1992). "Turner could almost have painted it," Director Victoria Pomery says, and she’s right – this next room, which contains works by both artists, eradicates any doubts you might have had about a connection between the two. Works calling to each other across the walls, announcing their similarity, almost tease you for disbelieving. There are some particularly excellent examples of curating whereby works are lined up in diagonal communion. If you stand facing Turner’s Foot of St Gothard (1842) and glance to your left into the next gallery, you catch sight of Frankenthaler’s Milkwood Arcade (1963), a work that perfectly matches it in tone, colour and shape. It’s a trick but a brilliant one and this exhibition has certainly been hung in a thoughtful and thought-provoking manner.
The final gallery shows Frankenthaler’s later works. They are on a larger scale than her early paintings and use fewer but bolder colours. The stars of the show are Burnt Norton (1972) and Overture (1992) and it’s worth going along just to see these staggering works in the bright Margate sealight.