Drawing and Writing 2

Frankenthaler’s literary interests are well known, in fact given away by the title of one of her pictures, Seven Types of Ambiguity, also the title of a book by William Empson, one of the most widely read works of literary criticism of the last fifty years. Yet her punning use

Helen Frankenthaler, Seven Types of Ambiguity 1957

of the word “before,” mentioned in an earlier post, suggests that she may have been familiar with another book by Empson, The Structure of Complex Words, published in 1951. Empson devotes entire chapters to a single word, or to the uses of a single word in one work of literature; the word “dog” gets two chapters, “sense” three. As discussed earlier on this blog, one word can have a resonance far beyond its immediate recognition—something I myself learned from Empson. But with respect to Frankenthaler, it’s important to remember that ambiguity is not the same thing as primeval undifferentiation. Anne Wagner, in her writing on the artist, has stressed what she calls “pictorial disarticulation.” She talks about marks “…whose interconnections are episodic at best” and “unmaking.” She “…never aimed for…a signature gestalt.” I’m very sympathetic to this reading, and it supports what I said earlier about belatedness and the rhetoric of origins. But though that is a correct description of Frankenthaler’s work, it is not a complete one. Wagner has also flagged Frankenthaler’s drawing, and this is where some nuance has to enter the analysis. Unlike Pollock’s skeins, Frankenthaler’s lines are not self generating—her drawing is traditional by comparison, and has no feeling of aspiration toward “firstness.” The piece illustrated has many deliberate and calculated lines, including contours of unfinished images. It might be useful to remember that in art ambiguity cannot function except in a context of clarity, deliberation and control, and this thought provokes the further consideration that the same might apply to “pictorial disarticulation.” Frankenthaler’s lines even become words and numbers, as for example where the seven types of ambiguity are tallied as six digits crossed through by a line. Maybe she is trying to “write” poetry in a language that only coheres on occasion, as well as, and on the same surface, paint pictures on the same principle. This writerly or calligraphic potential is also implicit in Pollock’s drip pictures, so Frankenthaler’s effort might be a kind of prying apart of what is strongly unified in her precursor’s work. But if abstraction verges on writing, then the distinction between supposedly “mute” modernist art and discursive art starts to break down. The distinction between art that explains everything and art that does not remains.

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