At the show with the artist: Geoff Hands visits “Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner” in Margate


Artist and lecturer Geoff Hands’ reading of “Making painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner” currently at the Turner Contemporary, also to discover that art outside the big cities could be a more rewarding experience.


In the UK the historical and contemporary art world is certainly London-centric, and for the exhibition visitor who lives in the south eastern corner of England (in my case it is Brighton, on the south coast) it is as challenging to avoid London, even occasionally, as it is for those living further afield in Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Edinburgh or Newcastle where there is a strong regional interest and activity in contemporary art.


Perhaps it was the habitual focus on London that delayed my decision, but with barely four weeks remaining of this fifteen week long show I made the journey, by-passing London, to visit the Turner Contemporary in Margate, a diminutive seaside town in Kent.


The double pleasure of seeing a small, but not insignificant selection, of both Turner’s paintings and Helen Frankenthaler’s was my reward for making this journey on a glorious spring day. Note the season (‘Primavera’), for after the wettest UK winter in living memory, leaving a ‘Turneresque’-misty south coast and then traveling by road in the sunshine with the wonderful blues and greens of the Kent landscape and the azure blue of the sky at the coast, this indulgence of colour in nature was echoed by the paintings on display at Turner Contemporary.


An interest in colour linked to the idea of ‘nature’ might appear anachronistic for the contemporary artist, but our environments, both urban and rural, are marked by the phenomenon of colour, not just in geographical and atmospheric instances, but also in the materials that constitute our manufactured world. Colour is unavoidable whether it is directly referenced, superficial or contingent.


Exhibiting the work of the greatest British painter (though others might argue the case for John Constable), JMW Turner, with the not so well known Helen Frankenthaler struck me as a decision that was as surprising as it was understandable. There is an obvious link with Abstract Expressionism, via Impressionism, back to Turner. The surprise was that it had not been done before (though the ‘Turner Monet Twombly’ 2012 show at the Tate Liverpool was perhaps a precursor for this latest staging of Turner with other formidable artists). Which other later 20th century painter’s work could survive on the same walls alongside Turner (Rothko or De Kooning perhaps?).


Visiting this exhibition as an abstract painter (if I have to choose a label), but also as a painting teacher, I have an interest in ‘ideas’ in fine art, I found myself intrigued by a notion of the ‘idea’ of painting. Turner’s work presented the realisation that he was not simply recording (and constructing and inventing) places visited and experienced in his native country and parts of Europe from his ‘Grand Tours’, but he was presenting paintings as informed counter-parts to the landscape. Turner’s work can be linked to the idea of the ‘Sublime’ and the more current notion of the ‘liminal’ – the space that is time-bound with a sense of becoming or renewing. There is also a simulated, or ‘hyperreality’, dominant in his work, that included a production-line methodology for making thousands of watercolour paintings. In Turner’s images the depicted scene could often be subservient to the application of paint to surface – only convention demanded the ‘scenery’ to provide a literal Romantic narrative.


But perhaps that Romantic sensibility (fuelled by the written-poetic inspiration that fueled his inspiration), also informs Frankenthaler and her colleagues from the New York School almost 150 years later? The abstract language is grounded in the media and process focused ‘here and now’, in physical actions and cerebrally intelligent and measured decision-making. Like Turner, Frankenthaler’s work can suggest pre-meditated forms but is often intuitive. In Frankenthaler’s often quite ‘cool’ and anti-gestural abstraction, she abhorred drips and eventually eradicated the expressionistic brush mark, to relate a comprehension of the phenomenological experience of ‘being in the world’ – just as Turner did. But in the vocabulary of the Abstract Expressionist idiom painting becomes more overtly conceptualised and external subject matter becomes subservient to the means of its making. However, Frankenthaler never loses sight of the world around her, especially in relation to landscape. Displaying her work with Turner’s reminds the viewer to this exhibition that concepts, materials and processes are inextricably linked even when certain aspects may dominate at different times in history.






September 22, 2014