Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner, Turner Contemporary, Margate – review

When Turner Contemporary best lives up to its name, it does so by exhibiting fabulous Turners in the context of serious modern art.

Since every abstract painter looks back – consciously or not – to Turner, resonance is easy, but the current juxtaposition with colour field leader Helen Frankenthaler stands out. For both artists landscape was the potent, constant source; Frankenthaler tried, she said, to “translate” landscape into an abstract idiom.

Although the selection of Turners here seems arbitrary, it includes some of the artist’s most reductive, abstract watercolours of mere blots, marks and forms vanishing in the mist – “On the Sea Shore”, “Cilgerran Castle”, “Trematon Castle, Cornwall” – and the important study of light and sea atmosphere “The Evening Star”, where the star, depicted in thickly applied white paint, is barely discernible in the sky but reflects brilliantly in the water.

Frankenthaler aimed for a similar sort of grandeur. Her innovation was to refine Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique into a more harmonious drama of staining, by which she poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes on to raw canvas, so that the weave absorbed the colour in broad flat areas. The results, which she described as “looking to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete”, are gently beautiful, airy, fluid, and often resemble watercolours in their spontaneity. “Seascape with Dunes”, “The Bay”, “Sands”, from the 1960s, are optimistic, exuberant examples of her bright flooding colour. “Lush Spring” (1975), soft green-whites on a tinted blue ground, is a luminous masterpiece of the method. “Eastern Light” (1982) is darker and more complex, and “Overture” (1992) is Frankenthaler at her freest yet most commanding: swirling paint now sucked into dense vortices, now dissolving into rich, liquid patterns.

Frankenthaler died in 2011, and she demands reassessment, kick-started last year by Gagosian’s New York show of early work. This is, however, her first UK exhibition since 1969: a coup for Margate. Catch the show in its final month, when the gallery shimmers in spring light.

Until May 11,

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