WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — “It looks like a map of the U.S.,” the woman in the gallery said.
“And those are the ‘oceans,’” she continued, pointing to the thin horizontal swashes of blue paint on both ends of the 21-foot-long canvas. The dark green at the top represents “Canada,” she told us.
On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon in July, there were about 20 visitors gathered near “Off White Square,” a 1973 acrylic painting by Helen Frankenthaler.
Abstract impressionism at the Clark Art Institute? Isn’t this the museum famed for its Renoir, Degas, Homer and John Singer Sargent?
“As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings” is the current exhibit at the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, the Clark’s mountain-view gallery for contemporary art, and we were on a guided tour, one of three or four offered daily in various galleries during July and August.
Our guide, Leah Rosenfeld, wasn’t just telling us about the tension between abstract and representational art in these 12 large-scale Frankenthaler works, she encouraged us to share our thoughts about each painting.
And so we did.
With its 10-year expansion project in the rearview mirror, the Clark’s multiple art spaces now offer visitors not just one big show to savor but a sumptuous banquet.
On a fair summer day, more than 1,200 people may show up at the museum, but there is always room for solitude amid the 140 acres of meadow, forest and mountain. On this day, the Adirondack chairs at the edge of the rock-strewn pond were all occupied and two women were sitting along the pond’s edge, dipping their bare feet in the cool water.
This summer, the main attraction is “Picasso: Encounters,” an exhibit the Wall Street Journal says is “a splendid sampler of the range of Picasso’s genius as a printmaker.” According to Galerie magazine, the show is “singlehandedly worth a trip to the Berkshires.”
The 35 Picassos, including his seminal “Self-Portrait” from his Blue Period, hang on the first floor of the Clark Center. One floor below, you’ll see "Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design," an opulent exhibit of furniture, paintings, ceramic and textiles that looks at the works of Tadema (1836-1912) and his design of a music room for the New York mansion of Henry Gurdon Marquand, a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s also another Frankenthaler exhibit, “No Rules: Frankenthaler Woodcuts” in the newly remodeled Manton Research Center.
My first stop was the Picasso.
“Encounters” traces Picasso’s graphic evolution from 1904 to 1970 but its themes are focused not on him but the people and artworks who influenced his work, as in Old Master paintings and the women who were his muses.
“Weeping Woman I” (1937), one of many images he made of his mistress Dora Maar, is a searing portrait by an artist who said that women are “suffering machines.”
The next stop was the Manton Center and the Frankenthaler woodcuts.
In these 17 works, we see up close how Frankenthaler experimented and nudged the medium past old boundaries.
“Free Fall,” 1993, a 12-color woodcut made from 21 woodblocks, is printed on an impossibly large, more than 6-by-5-foot, piece of hand-dyed paper.
Her final woodcut, “Weeping Crabapple,” with its wisps and lines of color, was made in 2009, when she was 81 years old.
Here, the public as well as students and scholars, are welcome to rest and browse in the reading room, where dozens of art journals and magazines are displayed
When it’s time for the gallery talk at Stone Hill, one can walk up a quiet woodland path or take a ride on the shuttle.
Frankenthaler, who died in 2011 at age 83, worked in her Connecticut studio and exhibited over six decades. She sketched outdoors and admired the landscapes and seascapes of Gustave Courbet and J.M. W. Turner.
Frankenthaler trained as a Cubist artist in the post-World War II era, when the center of the art world moved from Paris to New York City, Rosenfeld told us.
“This movement was male-dominated. She stood out because she was a woman. And her art was looked at differently because she was a woman.”
Our first stop was “Abstract Landscape,” a somewhat dull Cubist-style oil-and-charcoal work from 1951, one of Frankenthaler’s earliest works and the only one that our group failed to comment on.
Yet it was only a year later that she painted “Mountains and Sea,” the work that made her famous.
Frankenthaler became known for her soak-stain technique, painting on unprimed canvas with oil paint diluted with turpentine. The color would sink into the canvas, creating a translucent, water color-like effect.
Gallery interpreters, even Rosenfeld, a Williams College student, must tackle difficult questions and unpredictable comments.
When we stop at “Giralda,” a painting in warm shades of brown that the artist created after visiting a bell tower in Spain, we learn that Frankenthaler was criticized for alluding to nature and objects in her work.
“Abstract art was not supposed to be representational,” Rosenfeld says.
When our guide mentions that Frankenthaler had a close relationship with art critic Clement Greenberg, the women in our group cringed and frowned when one of the men questioned her talents and contended that it was her connections and not her art that made her famous.
“She was sleeping with the critic,” he said.
When we reach “Barometer,” 1992, horizontal waves of thick white paint push furiously into strokes of gray.
Some of us saw the ocean, others imagined a snowstorm.
One woman said she disliked anyone — curators, art historians or the average viewer — interpreting an abstract based on its title.
“I think the painting comes first, then the title comes afterword,” she said.
Rosenfeld reminded us that all responses to abstract art are valid, and that each of us could bestow our own title on an artwork.
“It’s another element of abstract art,” she said.
We return to “Off White Square,” where a viewer wonders about a small red drip on a yellow section of paint. Could that be an accident?
“Everything in Helen Frankenthaler’s painting was intentional,” Rosenfeld replied.
Picasso, Frankenthaler and Alma-Tadema
WHERE: Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Massachusetts
WHAT & WHEN: Four exhibits: “Picasso: Encounters” through Aug. 27; “Orchestrating Elegance: Alma-Tadema and Design” through Sept. 4; “As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings” through Oct. 9; and “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Wood Cuts” through Sept. 24.
HOW MUCH: $20, free for age 18 and under and students with ID
MORE INFO: clarkart.edu, (413) 458-2303