Helen Frankenthaler at Skowhegan

From the Archive


Helen Frankenthaler came to Skowhegan during the summer of 1986 as a visiting faculty artist. In addition to conducting studio visits with participants, she gave a lecture on campus in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn. This talk, excerpts of which can be explored below, is preserved in Skowhegan’s Lecture Archive, a trove of lectures by faculty and other artists who spoke at Skowhegan dating back to 1952.

On October 5th, 2017, Skowhegan announced that it has received a $250,000 gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The funds will provide for a new studio building which will be named in Frankenthaler’s honor, acknowledging her deep commitment to studio practice, and will accommodate discrete workspaces for three visual artists. When complete, the Frankenthaler Studio will be the 15th studio building on Skowhegan’s 350-acre campus, joining those named for other artists who taught at Skowhegan, including founder Willard “Bill” Cummings and Jacob Lawrence.

Read the full release to learn more about the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation's gift.

TRANSCRIPT


Helen Frankenthaler:  “Okay. New work. I wrote this in the middle of the night, in quite a panic, one night, feeling I'd been looking at all this new work and very alone for about a year and a half. I had this body of work, and I felt, I don't know if it means anything. Then I felt, well, what about my past, and other artists' pasts, and everything else. So for a few nights, on and off, I would just make some notes about new work. These are some of them, in no particular order.

New work: People often go up to an artist and say, ‘Are you doing any new work?’ Or, ‘I hear you have a body of new work.’ The artist is usually taken aback by such a confrontation. Recently, after many such inquiries, I literally sat down and gave some thought to what, really, new work means.

  1. What does it mean when an artist presents new work? Recent work? Or fresh work, the beginning of a new phase, or spirit? A new direction or the hint of one?

  2. Does the artist fully realize what he's accomplished, what he's doing, what he's up to?

  3. How does it look different?

  4. How has it developed? Does it make a new statement? Hopefully, does it enlarge one's truth? Are we shocked or puzzled by it in a fresh way? And are we shocked in a way that goes beyond initial shock? That is, beyond entertainment, but, instead, a shock that eases us into seeing and enjoying, and growing with beauty?

  5. Is the new work a minor departure or a significant breakthrough? A new way ‘to see’? A magic that combines a repetition of the past within a new vision, within the context of the artist's whole aesthetic gestalt — the eye, the mind, the wrist, the leap of heart that physically places the mark.

When an artist is developing a departure within his aesthetic, there is an initial shock, or surprise, of a first picture. For myself, I can think of how I felt first looking at Mountains and Sea, 1952; or Sesame, 1970; Roulette, 1978; or the blue one [Out of the Blue], 1985; the one I said I'd painted just about a year ago, the first of a series.

Then a body of work usually follows those pivotal pictures and grows within the context of that initial shock. Eventually that core of work enhances and restates and explains, that first surprise picture. Nothing comes out of the blue. Mountains and Sea, for example, was followed by many years of soaked, stained work, placed on unsized, unprimed cotton duck. Which really isn't true. It wasn't many years. It was maybe one of the first, but many years of pictures that led up to it. Also, what I forgot to write was that I'd spent a summer of doing nothing but landscapes in Nova Scotia that year and suddenly did Mountains and Sea after many, many small landscapes. I'd already been an abstract painter, but I spent the summer just doing what I call ‘verbatim landscapes’ — the tree that looked just like the tree.

Small’s Paradise, 1964, and Buddha’s Court, 1964, reinforce the format of the square and also began what later, much later, became tinted ground, tinted ground rather than merely leaving the duck the color it is, naturally.

The blue one painted in June 1985 spawned many pictures. I would guess about one third of those I destroyed in the process, right or wrong, out of doubt.

The following new body of work, what you saw, hopefully continues to resolve that first surprise picture, which seemed awkward, inevitable, and at the same time to have the sense of rightness, the certainty of the mark. A new painting has the authority of saying, in effect, ‘I had to be made!’ It has the sudden look to it, and to the artist himself. But when we look at that one, seemingly simple gesture of the new work, of a new picture, all the effort, search, failure, confusion, and often depression that preceded it seems to show not at all.

That is one side of the coin — it doesn't show at all. [From the other,] you know that, in order to do this, the artist must have felt certain ways — and I think the older you get the more you appreciate that — even if it's the most sunlit, primary-colored, left-handed dream of a picture. Well, that's one reason you can tell the difference, in a flash, between a kid's picture and a grownup's. Very often people say to you, ‘Who made this?’ And I'll say, ‘A very free, wonderful four-year-old who has no guilt yet, just an angel, but a kid.’ And they'll say, ‘Gee, I would have sworn it was a Matisse.’ I feel [like saying], You dope! [Audience laughter] It’s another trip.

Where was I?

It's only a lucky moment, all things combined, that the artist and the picture itself, together, say ‘give’.

And then I just have some other notes, such as space and light: The shapes and forms that one first puts down are the need and excuses for putting down the right colors, exactly where they belong, in a given space. There should be a constant dialogue between color and line, and all within the perfect scale and light. And you have an intuitive sense of placing within that scale.

And that's it on new work. So. Speak. Or don't.”

Bernard Langlais and Skowhegan

Hannah W. Blunt

Langlais Curator for Special Projects, Colby College

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In 1940, Bernard Langlais left his home state of Maine, set on pursuing a career in commercial art. His childhood studio—a loft space over his grandparents' barn—was filled with his early artistic exploits: comic strips, painted banners for local sports games, and cartoon drawings. Eager for training and artistic exposure, Langlais said he was “just biding my time, waiting to finish high school so that I could go somewhere else.” In 1949, after a stint in the Naval Air Command and several years studying at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., he received a scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. On the then 160-acre farm, with its converted-barn studios, rolling fields, and open-air “classrooms,” Langlais was enlightened by paradox: he was surrounded by a diverse group of experimental artists, in a rural setting just 60 miles down the Maine back roads from his childhood home in Old Town. “The first summer at Skowhegan changed the direction of my life,” he wrote in 1973. He abandoned commercial design for fine art, and began making vibrant, expressionistic painted landscapes.

Langlais returned to Skowhegan as a participant for three summers in a row (1949-51). He forged close friendships with Alex Katz and Charles Duback, artists who became his studio mates in New York City. Skowhegan School co-founder Willard “Bill” Cummings—once described as a man who was “just farming artists instead of chickens”—became a friend and mentor. Langlais rented a cottage from Cummings on Wesserunsett Lake after the School's session. It was even in Skowhegan, at Lakewood Theater, across the Lake from campus, that Langlais first spotted Helen Friend, an aspiring singer and the daughter of a Maine state senator who was working at the ticket booth—they married in 1955.

The deeper, more lasting effect of the School, however, was Langlais's fixation on the environment of his art: how and where he worked; the materials and techniques he used; and the conditions in which he completed and displayed his pieces. Outdoor space, old barns, reclaimed wood, and fresh Maine air became integral to Langlais's art. By the late 1950s, Langlais abandoned painting for the medium of wood—a material he found more intuitive. Langlais remained close to Bill Cummings even after he purchased his own summer cottage in Cushing. When Langlais debated moving back to Maine full-time in the mid-1960s, he confided in a letter to Cummings: “I think I've had it with NY.”

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It was Cummings who recommended Langlais to the Skowhegan Tourist Hospitality Association in 1967 for their planned monument to Maine's Native Americans. Cummings applauded their decision “to have a fine work of art rather than a commercial statue with no local or artistic identity.” Nonetheless, and not surprisingly, Langlais challenged the Association's concept for the commission. The original plans outlined a thirty-foot statue representing an Indian, which one advisor to the project described as, “a compromise between expected-tourist-stereotype and whatever historical-accuracywe-can-uncover.” Langlais used the full 70-foot timbers that were donated for the project and, after taking it upon himself to research the local native peoples, represented an Abenaki man with fishing weir and spear, rather than the figure with headdress, loin cloth and tomahawk that had been proposed. He worked on the project for two years, building scaffolding for the statue in the front yard of his home in Cushing in order to work on the sculpture at its full height.

In June of 1969, the monumental piece was transported to Skowhegan on a flatbed truck with a similarly gigantic banner that identified the cargo as THE SKOWHEGAN INDIAN. The legislative body recessed as the Indian passed the State Capital in Augusta. In the weeks leading up to the dedication ceremony, a rumor began to spread that President Richard Nixon might be in attendance at the dedication event. Much better than an appearance by Nixon, though, were Langlais's succinct, humble remarks at the ceremony: “I've lived with this fellow for two years. There will be an empty space in my yard. He's become a good friend. I hope you accept him as that.”

By the time of the Indian's dedication, Langlais had populated his backyard with half a dozen large-scale wood sculptures, mostly representing animals, from the jungle to the plains to the realms of make believe, but also athletes and politicians. That number multiplied in the 1970s as his land became his primary canvas. He covered the exteriors of his barns with wood reliefs, and moved and reworked three-dimensional pieces in an ever-changing outdoor installation. Langlais acquired live sheep, geese, a donkey, a ram, and a horse to graze among the sculptures. By his death in 1977, he had created a farm of his own in Cushing, a rolling field with old barns, muddy ponds, and river views, where art was the bumper crop.

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I see you, you see me.

by Felipe Steinberg (A '14)

Felipe Steinberg is a Brazilian artist whose film and video works relate largely to an examination of global political structures explored through the micro relationships expressed in daily life and culture. While at Skowhegan, Felipe developed work in response to a local public sculpture, Bernard Langlais's Indian, which was undergoing renovation. Interested in both the town's investment in preserving the sculpture and its complicated history with the Native American population, Felipe inverts the colonial eye by using film and photo to convey the Indian's gaze upon the town's inhabitants.

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Exhibitions from the Archives

A living history

In 2010, Skowhegan began researching more than 200 artworks in our archive. Encompassing the entirety of our history, the archive is a survey of American art—its trends, concerns, materials, movements, and techniques. In summer 2012, Skowhegan opened two exhibitions, one on campus and one in downtown Skowhegan, advertised by the poster pictured below, and featuring a painting of Skowhegan’s original barn by John Udvardy (A ’57), completed when he was a participant. What follows is an email exchange between John and Sarah Workneh that illustrates the importance of the archive as a living history that both captures a moment in time, and has far reaching connections and a life beyond its moment.

Poster designed by Nataliya Slinko announcing one of two exhibitions of works from the Skowhegan Archives & featuring the work of John Udvardy.

Poster designed by Nataliya Slinko announcing one of two exhibitions of works from the Skowhegan Archives & featuring the work of John Udvardy.

On Sep 11, 2012, at 12:18 PM, Sarah Workneh wrote:

Dear John,

I am one of the co-Directors at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. I came to Skowhegan in 2010 and in my time there, we have spent considerable time going through the artworks on campus in Maine. We have identified a really beautiful painting of the old Fresco Barn that you made while on campus in 1957. Over the summer, while the program was in session, we curated a small show of works in the collection to show in the town of Skowhegan, as a way to demystify what we do on campus and to link our history to the area. We made the attached poster for the event, featuring your work. While the initial poster was used in town over the course of 2 days, we would now like to use an image of the poster in our upcoming newsletter (4,100 copies). Before we print on such a large scale I wanted to check with you to see if that is okay with you. It is such a remarkable piece, and a really amazing representation of such an important historical space on campus.

This summer I pulled the painting out of the racks to show two curators from the Colby College Museum of Art. Because it is so large and delicate, I didn’t want to put it back without help, so I left it leaning against the racks in the archive. The next day, I was touring Arlene Shechet, who had just arrived as a Visiting Faculty member, around campus. She stopped to look more closely at your piece which was still out from the day before, and was so excited and a little in shock that it was yours! Completely unexpected, and from what I understand you two had lost touch until fairly recently when you wrote a letter to her. Synchronicity!

Let me know what you think... and thank you!

Sincerely,
Sarah Workneh


On Sep 11, 2012, at 4:45 PM, John Udvardy wrote:

Dear Sarah Workneh,

What a wonderful surprise for me when I opened your letter! As soon as I saw even a small portion of this work—I said to myself OMG that looks exactly like something I might have done!

When I saw my name on it, the deja vu and the wonderful sweet memories of it all came flooding back in on me! Believe it or not, but I can almost remember every brush stoke that I made on that piece and recall the wonderful smells and air of that barn. What great times and memories I have of my mind opening experiences and training I encountered during that precious summer time at Skowhegan.

Sarah you need not even ask—Of course you may use the work however you wish.

I am touched and deeply honored that you wish to extend its life further in this important way, and thank you!

If you could be so kind, I would greatly appreciate it if you could please send me a couple of the posters which you had made, and I am on your mailing list. But a few extra Newsletters would be appreciated! Thank you.

If you see Arlene Shechet again please give her my love and best wishes and congratulations on being there. She is the best! In an interesting way, with Arlene being there it almost completes another circle for me.

Thank you very much Sarah, I cannot tell you how thrilled I am.

With warm regards,
John Udvardy