Henri Matisse

Stretching before and after

Helen Frankenthaler wrote of her 1972 painting, ‘Burnt Norton’: 

I was thinking about Eliot, making order out of chaos, of light and dark. Like Eliot’s poem, the painting’s simplicity is arrived at after a great deal of complexity. My work is never playful. This seemed at the time an especially serious and weighty picture to solve.

The resulting work seems to be a distillation of what she found in Eliot’s poem, deceptively simple in its reduction, until you learn that Frankenthaler worked on the grey-blue horizontal line that interrupts the brown near the lower edge of the picture for many weeks until she got it right. Is that line the ‘still point of the turning world’ that Eliot envisioned, something not fixed, but not static? The line hovers in Frankenthaler’s painting, ‘a white light still and moving’; it could be a body of water, a break in the relentless brown of the hulking shape that dominates the canvas – a dark mountain range. There is a dip, a view through to a lighter horizon tinged with rose (the exact colour of ‘dust on a bowl of rose leaves’), something seen but not quite reached. 

Eliot’s poem is about time, how from the present moment stretches both past and future. In Frankenthaler’s painting, it is tempting to see that line she struggled with for so long as the present, the dark mountain as the past, the rosy glow in the distance as the future. But that is perhaps too simple – a way of desiring meaning from a painter whose vision is never absolute. In that respect, Eliot is Frankenthaler’s perfect poet, dense and difficult in his subjects, but light and lyrical in his words. 

Walking around the current Making Painting show at Turner Contemporary, I was struck again by what a brave painter Frankenthaler was, how she took all those butch abstract expressionist movements and softened them. But that makes her sound uncertain, and her canvases are big, bold, exploring colour and light the way Matisse did, but with the lyrical focus of Monet (I found the show’s attempt at a comparison with Turner distracting – he’s not the first painter I would think of as an influence on Frankenthaler, although when you look at their approach to similar subjects, of course there are some similarities). A film of her working shows her kneeling over a huge canvas placed on the floor – the technique of Pollock’s which freed her. But unlike Pollock, all bravado and splash, her gestures are slow, deliberate. And yet she is not as famous as he is, although she deserves to be. You look at Frankenthaler’s work and see the whole scope of Color Field painting opening up with those first grand gestures. 

Frank O’Hara knew it. Eliot, for all his classicism, would not be the right poet to repay the compliment. O’Hara wrote of Frankenthaler’s work:

she is the medium of her material, never polishing her insights into a rhetorical statement, but rather letting the truth stand forth plainly and of itself.

But Eliot was more in my mind than O’Hara as I came out onto the front in Margate, thinking again of his efforts to connect nothing with nothing, and how Frankenthaler somehow nails it.


Anthony Caro, 1924-2013

It is interesting how reputations are set once an artist dies. Anthony Caro, who died last Wednesday, was described in various obituaries as ‘Britain’s greatest sculptor’ and ‘one of the finest artists of his generation’. Sometimes the loss of a great figure creates hyperbole, but in the case of Caro, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he changed the course of sculpture in this country.

From the moment Caro decided not to become an accountant, as his father wanted, and to go to art school, he was single-minded in his pursuit of what came before, as a way of working out what to do next. He learned much from painters, specifically from Picasso and Matisse, who challenged the two-dimensional space of the canvas. It was only after he became an assistance to Henry Moore, perhaps Britain’s greatest sculptor of his day, that he really received the education he desired. Moore threw books at him, showed him classical sculpture, African tribal work, anything that would be useful for the younger artist. But the main thing Moore gave him was the ability to see sculpture removed from the plinth, removed from the gallery altogether. And that’s where Caro took off:

What we wanted to do at that time was to make sculpture work as something in its own right, not as something that depended on its likeness to nature. We wanted to make it more fully abstract, just as music is abstract. But sculpture’s materiality always tries to suck the sculpture back into the world of things. It was for this reason we had to open sculpture up. Our intent was to repudiate the object – and naturally our starting point was painting, Cubism and Matisse. Abstract sculpture began to take charge of the space it occupied, first by standing on the same literal ground as we do, then by bringing the floor itself to bear on the work, and later by taking into its realm table height and the wall.

Caro wasn’t interested in casting. He was interested in taking already-existing materials (as all artists seem to do now) and working them into a particular form. He was interested in colour – his love of Matisse showed him that colour can pitch nature into an entirely new perspective, and there he met abstract expressionism and later pop art head on. He made sculptures that were entirely themselves, which occupied a particular space, and resonated. He was interested in scale, how we measure up to things. He said:

Public sculpture identifies place. It gives the city-dweller a sense of ‘being somewhere’. And so it has to call to its surroundings and to the public. It can – and I believe nowadays it often should - invite participation. How a sculpture is seen by the viewer is always of extreme importance …

I thought of this just a few weeks ago when I was at the Museo Correr, for the Biennale’s Caro retrospective – what was the be his final show. There was a room of early drawings, which I had never seen before, and which gave a sense of the sculpture playing with ideas of weight and depth on paper.

Caro’s work, which was always playing with the new, but with a nod to the old, looked right at home in the hard and shining marble and terrazzo of the Correr. I watched a couple walk around and around one of the larger free-standing pieces that filled an entire gallery, trying to find the welding marks. They finally concluded, as one must, that the sculpture does not come apart, it is not a flat-pack assemblage. And then they turned to the guard and asked how they managed to get it into the building (the Correr’s temporary galleries are on the 4th floor of the palazzo), and the guard pointed to the large double window. And we all had an image of this great flying bird, something fantastic, scaling the heights of the edifice, with all of San Marco watching in amazement. We know the works weigh tons, but they also feel weightless, light, effortless, flowing.

Leaving the Correr and coming into the pristine square of San Marco, I was left with a celebration of form and shape – abstract, yes – but always placing us in the frame somehow, that idea that we should not simply be spectators, but participants. And that is immensely uplifting in an age where so many things are presented to us virtually, on screen. I’ll finish with these words from Caro himself:

All the artists I believe in are some sort of optimist. Optimism of this sort, like serenity, is hard won. Art is a religious activity – it’s about living. Decay and dying are something else. I can’t allow myself self-pity or a morbid attitude. There’s too much left to do in the studio. That’s the source as well as the place for my optimism.