Everything is Interdependent

Angela Dufresne
Associate Professor, Painting

Helen Frankenthaler, Holocaust, 1955, enamel, tube oil pigment, and turpentine on unsized cotton canvas, 68 3/8 x 54 in. The Albert Pilavin Memorial Collection of 20th-century American Art 72.108; Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence

Last winter, Painting professor Angela Dufresne met with Jennifer Liese, Director of the Center for Arts & Language, at the RISD Museum to talk about Helen Frankenthaler’s Holocaust(1955), now on view in the exhibition The Phantom of Liberty: Contemporary Works in the RISD Museum Collection. Dufresne’s observations, distilled from their conversation and originally published in Provincetown Arts magazine, made Frankenthaler’s painting feel vividly and disconcertingly of the present.

When I walked up to this painting, the first thing that came to mind for me is Gentileschi’s beheadings or one of those Viennese floating heads of John the Baptist. I immediately think of violence, and not just because of the title—it’s the liquidity of the paint, the sense of bodily fluids. I tend to pictorialize things, so even the signature becomes a part of that hideous bird’s-eye view of the Battle of the Marne or the Allied troops landing on the beach at Normandy. To be able to syncopate the materiality of the painting with its meaning is so hard to do without being propagandist or metaphorical, but this painting marries materiality and pathos and lamentation in a way that’s absolutely sublime. It isn’t metaphorical, it’s experiential.

I also think of the “goo” of feminist painting in Mira Schor’s “Figure/Ground” essay, which I just reread, but that’s looking through the lens of feminism, which we all know Frankenthaler never embraced. It was a different era, with different modes of survival for an artist, but in a way everything she did was feminist. In the Painters Painting documentary from the 1970s, she shows up as this badass, unapologetically arrogant, exuberant female in the midst of all these men. Unlike the men’s paintings of the period, there’s no critique of representation in this work, there’s so much independence and liberty. That is feminist. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation just gave a major grant to Skowhegan to make a brand-new studio. I was there last summer, and 65 percent of the artists there were people of color, and many did not come from elite institutions. So her success really does trickle down, to use a pun while looking at these drips. She didn’t call herself a feminist, but her commitment to poetic revolutionary thinking was always there.

I’m also thinking of everything that Julia Kristeva ever wrote about abjection, from Powers of Horror on down. So—and this is also in hindsight, of course—everything about this painting is abject. The central shape feels as though it’s been inverted, like in work by Dona Nelson or Amy Sillman, who, like me, also rotate their fields. That’s abjection—being so removed from the body you don’t know what’s up or down. It’s that unbelievable mystifying feeling, like, “Look how beautiful this is, but this is also the very thing that you shouldn’t be looking at. This is death.”

It’s deeply primal, and while Frankenthaler would by no means be a fan of the Surrealists, Holocaust is highly indebted to them. I think many young artists over the past decade and a half—and I would include myself—have embraced abstraction because they’re super-aware that social media takes away our primal connection with each other. Collaging things together like this is a physical act; it’s not cutting and pasting on Photoshop. That’s the value of objects, and this is such an object. You could never feel that coppery color and that white floating over it on a screen.

Without having made a hundred different kinds of pours and knowing a hundred different ways to use a brush, this painting could not happen. You need emotional intuition and sensitivity and spontaneity, but a painting like this really comes from knowledge, from rehearsed, informed action, from strategic thinking and psychological observation and performance. It only works when all of this comes together. Everything is interdependent. The way the white sits on top of the messy gray creates light and an explosion of flesh. The white doesn’t work without the brown area there next to the red. That red is reliant on the black that’s oozing over it. These things are radically separate and totally interdependent. Understanding that takes making a lot of paintings. Difference and interconnectedness—it sounds like I’m talking about politics here.

That orange circle in the upper left corner is Barthes’s punctum, the emotional center. It could be read in infinite ways. You could read it perspectivally, for example, but I think of it as an oddly placed word that creates a conundrum that creates a quagmire—if it were a sentence, you know. It’s also a tranquil, peaceful moment amid lots of turmoil, articulating something somewhat ambivalent, the possibility of beauty in all that madness. And that orangey color against all that blown-out sap green—that quiet, soft, nonviolent color relationship—does that, too. You can see where the orange has been painted over, so it probably came first, but the decision to keep it came last, so it’s first and it’s last. I’m speculating on that, but I’m pretty confident that’s when it happened. The white strands I’m sure of: that’s pouring and brushing with a lot of water and just kind of flinging, letting it sort of dangle. It’s the full-on Pollock move, the stick in the bucket.

Do you know Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower? It’s set in a near future where morality and ethics have gone threadbare. There’s that kind of “threadbareness” in this image—literally the threadbareness of the canvas, but also in the overly exposed nudity of the mark-making. The main character, Lauren, has this magical skill or illness called “feeler” or hyper-empathy, where if she sees somebody fall and bump their head she feels their pain. Like that, this image might train the person who encounters it to a higher level of empathy and civility. Lauren also poses as a man to survive, and starts to understand what it means to be not locked in a single gender, that we are something bigger than our individual packaging. This is fundamentally the trans idea, that we’re all unique, and gender is just a construct we make. To queer something is to overstep a boundary—the ontology or the logic of what a thing is doing—and this painting is doing that, too.

I’m forever indebted to Frankenthaler. It’s a very dark time, with this backlash against the feminism that Frankenthaler, like many of her generation, didn’t embrace, but that she in fact made possible. She laid the groundwork. She also found all these different methods to speak in ways that are unspoken. So many of the painters of her time feel design-y or robotic. They have a way of filling the space and creating central forms. There’s no compositional stability in her paintings, no image strategy. It’s like Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain—no melody, only tonal harmonies and dissonances. She’s tireless. Her appetite, her sense of adventure about what you can do in a painting, is infinite.

Angela Dufresne is Associate Professor in Painting at RISD. She has described her work as articulating “non-paranoid, porous ways of being in a world fraught by fear, power, and possession.”