September 4, 2019

“Anything Is Possible”— Exploring a Kingdom of Books and the Art of Helen Frankenthaler

“Tales of Genji III,” 1998, color woodcut, 119.4 x 106.7 cm. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York. For more information, visit The exhibit is free to the public and will be up through October 20, 2019.

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m on my own, to be thoroughly me without limits and anything is possible…
—Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Something resembling Helen Frankenthaler’s credo is on my mind every time I begin a column. Now it’s Labor Day weekend, art and work, the charisma of old books, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” a trip to Hay-on-Wye, and the Frankenthaler exhibition, which will be at the Princeton University Art Museum  through October 20.

The exhibit takes its theme from literary critic William Empson’s landmark study, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a title Frankenthaler borrowed for the large painting on view near the entrance to the gallery. According to curators Mitra Abbaspour and Calvin Brown, the show illustrates “the central principle of Empson’s text: that close reading, like close looking, can yield deep relationships with an abstract composition.”

Given the no-limits, anything-is-possible nature of this column, my idea of “close looking” is expressed in the second stanza of Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” where, “with an eye made quiet by the power/Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/We see into the life of things.”

Journey to the Kingdom of Books

What set me thinking back to a long-ago summer’s day at Tintern Abbey and Hay-on-Wye was the recent New York Times obituary biography of bookseller Richard Booth, the self-proclaimed “King Richard Coeur de Livre,” who “collected a million titles to transform a fading 12th-century Welsh market town into a mecca for secondhand book fanciers.” The Labor Day theme surfaced when I read how Booth “championed the members of the rural working class who built Hay-on-Wye into a Town of Books by hauling hundreds of thousands of volumes there to derelict properties repurposed as warehouses and stores.” As Booth modestly puts it in his autobiography My Kingdom of Books, “Working with just a few country laborers, I ended up possessing books of greater intellectual variety than all the universities in the British Isles put together.”

Busking and Browsing

My friend Roger and I arrived at Tintern Abbey almost 200 years to the day Wordsworth dated his poem, July 13, 1798. The weather was Britishly brooding and benign, house martins were feeding chicks nesting in the ramparts of the ruin, and we could hear with Wordsworth the waters of the Wye “rolling from their mountain-springs/With a soft inland murmur.” A few hours later Roger was stationed on Crown Street serenading the townsfolk of Hay-on-Wye with his Selmer Mark VI tenor sax while I went looking for, what else, books. As Roger began playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” I heard a pleased  female voice from one of the shops saying, “We have music today!” The mellow melancholic sound of the tenor seemed to be channeling Wordsworth’s “still sad music of humanity,/Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power/To chasten and subdue” and to charm some cash from the passersby. There’s both pleasure and profit in labor if you’re making money making music and doing it when and where you please. It’s a way of working free and at your own pace understood by Helen Frankenthaler, whose laborer’s mantra — both as a print-maker and a painter pouring “washes of color over great expanses of raw canvas” — is that “there are no rules — that’s how art is born, that’s how breakthroughs happen. Go against or ignore the rules — that’s what invention’s about.” 

Breaking the Rules

It was after 4 p.m. on Early Closing Day, but this being Hay-on-Wye, where booksellers, like artists, scoff at the rules, several were still open, including Richard Booth’s Bookshop, where I found two treasures by New Jersey native Stephen Crane (1871-1900). It makes sense that one of the most color-conscious of American writers was living among painters in the Art Students League building on East 23rd between 1893 and 1895, around the time he was writing The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. That the novel became a best-seller in the States was thanks in part to its extraordinary success in England. Now I had my hands on an affordable copy of the 1896 British edition with a pictorial title leaf showing, of all unlikely things, four Japanese figures in traditional costumes and peaked green hats, two holding flags on tall elegant poles, two playing immensely long wind instruments. Finding a classic Japanese print incongruously fronting a classic Civil War novel is the sort of thing that makes the quest for unusual old books a labor of love.

Flash forward to Frankenthaler’s rhapsody in blue on the cover of the summer 2019 Princeton Art Museum magazine — a woodcut “with painterly resonance,” in the words of Kenneth Tyler of Tyler Graphics, where she did some of her most important work. If, like me, you wonder what made the British publisher of The Red Badge of Courage bring a Japanese print into the mix (apparently it served as a blanket image for Heinemann’s Pioneer Series), you may also wonder why Frankenthaler chose Tales of Genji III as the title for this labor of love. According to the curators, it can be explained by the interest in Japanese prints she shared with Tyler, which led them to collaborate on “a series of large-scale prints inspired by one of the most frequently illustrated literary epics in Japanese art.”

“Wavering Crimson”

Finding Stephen Crane’s Bowery Tales (1900) was actually  more exciting to me than scoring the Red Badge because it’s a unique volume with an evocative title, published only in England, and named after the Lower East Side setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and George’s Mother, the two early novels collected between its charismatically grimy covers. Holding together nicely after 119 years, this soiled survivor carries the aura of the flophouse, with the author’s name spelled out in red letters under the still-bold black title on a front cover made of what book collectors call “oatmeal-colored cloth.” Of course what makes the book precious isn’t the fusty patina or the small brown stain on the front cover, it’s the vision of turn-of-the-century Manhattan brought to vivid life in the opening paragraph of George’s Mother, clearly the work of a writer who shares Frankenthaler’s disdain for rules and conventions:

“In the swirling rain that came at dusk the broad avenue glistened with that deep bluish tint which is so widely condemned when it is put into pictures. There were long rows of shops, whose fronts shone with full golden light. Here and there, from druggists’ windows, or from the red street-lamps that indicated the positions of fire alarm boxes, a flare of uncertain, wavering crimson was thrown upon the wet pavements.”

On Labor Day weekend, it’s worth pointing out the third paragraph’s “brown young man” going “along the avenue” holding “a tin lunch-pail under his arm in a manner that was evidently uncomfortable. He was puffing on at a corn-cob pipe. His shoulders had a self-reliant poise, and the hang of his arms and the raised veins of his hands showed him to be a man who worked with his muscles.”

Labor Intensive

There’s also “a self-reliant poise” in the exhibit photograph of Frankenthaler bending intently over her work table, bare-armed in a spattered apron, a balance of grace and force in arms that look at the same time no less appealingly feminine than they would in a sleeveless evening gown. An even more labor-intensive image shows her engaged on a project with Rodney Konopaki at Tyler Studios; if you didn’t know better, you’d think you were seeing two machinists at work.

The Ambiguities

I’ve been checking the twists and turns of this column against the types of ambiguity Empson notes in Seven Types of Ambiguity’s table of contents. The capital-A Ambiguity of Japanese-Civil War, Japanese-Abstract woodcut pairings can be related to type one, “when a detail is effective in several ways at once,” or, even better, type two, where “two or more alternative meanings are fully resolved into one,” though I wouldn’t use the word “fully.” But wait, in the third type “two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously,” which sounds about right, as does the fourth type, where “the meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author.” Give that one a big check from me-being-thoroughly me, and two checks for the fifth type, “a fortunate confusion, as when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing,” absolutely! I relate all too well to the sixth type, where “what is said is contradictory or irrelevant and the reader is forced to invent interpretations.” Finally, we come to the seventh type, which is “that of full contradiction, marking a division in the author’s mind.” Make that more than one division, with Wordsworth, Crane, Hiroshige, and Frankenthaler, and have you ever said “Happy Labor Day” to anyone?