First and last

In America, “first” means best, and also the leader. Of course, every artist is the last, always coming after the great achievements of the past. In American art, leadership is gained by deploying tropes of “firstness,” by claiming to access the primordial. Hence Pollock’s departure from cubism is toward less structure, less deliberation, less conscious control, themselves tropes of a less mediated experience and more originary art. The last, or latest, artist makes work that metaphorically precedes the precursor—it leads through the primordial, and his allusion to the hand prints in the Lascaux caves is a way of signaling this. Frankenthaler positions herself as earlier than Pollock with even less control and less deliberation. Colors bleed and spread indifferently, smudges and vague marks abound, the canvas is creased arbitrarily. And one of her pictures is called Before the Caves. But her priority  is established through the double meaning of the word “before,” which could mean either earlier or “in front of.” In this case the precursor is

Helen Frankenthaler, Before the Caves 1958

Cézanne, a modern origin in a confrontation with nature that precedes the studio art of Cubism. Wagner mentions that Frankenthaler did in fact visit Lascaux, and that this picture is something of a souvenir of that visit. Interesting that there is a watercolor of Rocks Near the Caves above Château Noir in the MoMA collection that must have been well known to Frankenthaler, and which has some resemblance to her painting.

Paul Cézanne, Rocks Near the Caves above Château Noir 1895-1900

The question raised by Frankenthaler is what does it mean to stand “before” a landscape and then represent it, and what kind of gap, temporal and spatial, lies between the experience of a place and the act of painting. But even more interesting is her acute sensitivity to the meanings of words.

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