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Video transcript

[Music] we're in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC looking at a large canvas by Helen Frankenthaler called mountains and sea and a dates to 1952 Frankenthal er is reported to have recently gone to Cape Breton in northern Nova Scotia where the mountains really do meet the sea and we can make out a blue horizon line on the right side of the canvas but when we look at the center of the canvas or the left side this is abstract painting abstract art emerges in the United States in the late 1940s early 1950s with artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman artists who are interested in expressing ideas through color through gesture and we see that here but we see a different kind of application of paint one of the great champions of Abstract Expressionism was a critic whose name is Clement Greenberg and Greenberg loved the way that people like Pollock seemed to be pushing ideas that had developed in the late 19th century with people like Cezanne and then early in the 20th century with artists like Matisse to an even greater level of abstraction Pollock was willing to give up reference to specific elements in the world he was painting about the act of painting or so Greenberg theorized Greenberg is seeing this development toward an interest in the materials the paint and the canvas getting away from the illusionism that Western art was about for hundreds of years and believed that art would be at its strongest if it was truthful about what it was what frankenthaler develops in this canvas is the idea that she can stain the canvas that the paint becomes almost like fresco embedded within the weave of the material as soon as we make a mark on a canvas our brains interpret that as a figure that sits on it how do you deny that illusion that our brain immediately jumps to but Frankenthaler is not trying to enact Clement Greenberg theories here it's her direct response to the canvas and to the landscape to the mountains in the sea of Cape Breton it is clearly a landscape at the right side and then that completely falls apart we read see and the horizon line in the blue at the right but then this vertical form that rises toward the center tapers off toward the left almost like a giant pyramid looks as though it moves toward us instead of mountains receding in space at the same time this charcoal line that is emphatically a drawing on the canvas and those lines feel very biomorphic to me very organic and so it makes it even harder I think to read a mountain there and then there are fields of color that are also amorphous that dissolve and cool paint that has been thinned and poured into the canvas itself and sometimes the color of that stain is indistinguishable or very close to the color of the canvas underneath it and you expect the staining of the paint to follow those charcoal lines but they seem very much independent of one another and there are places where the paint is clearly splashed on other places where it's pooled and where you can see at the edges it's a little bit thicker because it's sat there longer this painting is celebrated because it is the first painting of a group of artists Morris Lewis kenneth noland and helen frankenthaler that would use staining as a technique to create this embedded intentional 2 dimensionality and to me what that does is in some ways remove that sense of the presence of the artist which is so clear in paintings by Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning you don't get that sense of gesture that you do with those abstract expressionist although we do have that in the drawing and the splashes of the paint you use the word biomorphic to refer to the shapes here and that's a reminder of the bio morphism it was a part of surrealism earlier in the century the work for instance of Miro or Arshile Gorky allowing the unconscious to directly express itself on the canvas we can see this is an intuitive response to the landscape almost involving the unconscious without representing factually the mountains in the sea we go back to this important early painting by Helen Frankenthaler because it is such a grave intersection of all these conflicting issues and ideas [Music]