at the scottsdale
center for the arts
by Claribel Cone, 1980
There is a quote that Dorothy Fratt likes by Gertude Stein. As Stein was dying she inquired, "What is the answer?" and getting no answer she said, laughing, "In that case, what is the question?" This wondering what the question is, as well as the answer, is perhaps related to the desire Fratt has to avoid making predictable, contrived paintings.
Dorothy Fratt recently had a ten-year retrospective of her paintings from the period of 1970-1980 at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. These paintings are not so easily classified. They are too rich to be minimal, too spare to be expressionist. They deal with color and expansive space, yet they are too gestured and incidented to be straight colorfield works. They are adventures in form dealing with color as an expressive agent rather than as a mere phenomenon.
Her paintings are delicate in their balance between a field of color space and a gesture that lifts and defines the space. Fratt has always had an "active" hand. She has many black and white brush drawings. This painterly electric line is seen in her work as a gesture. By means of this gesture stroke placed on a large color space, Fratt plots her composition and releases it. She creates a contrast in her work from a steady continuum of space to a whip line.
Fratt says she is using a kind of peripheral vision on her edges. Her use of border wedges and lines of color frees the space inside the painting. This border placement is usually on a bias-the edge shaping the inner, floating space. She is interested in a wholly optical space where there is no gravity and she wants a freedom for the space her color creates.
Perhaps this large inside space that floats beneath the gestures of smaller color areas 1s an expression of the huge expansive space offered by the West. But, although the West and its freedom of space and light may have influenced Fratt's paintings, it's so difficult to define the expressive impetus for a painting. Fratt has produced a series dealing with the "Gulf of California." Partly, these works refer to an actual place of white sand dunes, ocean light and a completely isolated, silent landscape which Fratt has visited from time to time. She makes it clear, however, that she's not recreating a literal idea but a glare, an ambience, a place." Another painting is called Yei Song which finds its impetus in an expression of music. This "Yei Song" is from an Indian celebration where the song is made by a ventriloquist voice throwing the music into the night and the sound drifts in the darkness, away from the singer. Whether the original impetus for these paintings is light, landscape, music or memory, the abstract. expressive color shapes these thoughts.
Her color and her surface have a luminous interior light and a depth. She uses a lot of paint to create this surface and its mass. She says that when she tries to copy a color she has used before It is not enough to mix the exact color. Her surface and tones seem to need a richness of layers.
In earlier works, especially in the use of oils, Fratt scumbled and allowed the underpaintings to come through more But these newer works, perhaps because they are acrylics, make the underpainting fuse into a single bond. This bond gives an interior light to the color and a sense of the surface as mass. Fratt feels oil is better worked thick to thin and scumbled, but these acrylics have a bright, even clarity that lets the relationships pulse and the large areas spread evenly.
Her use of acrylic pigments which create a somewhat mat brightness indicates a sensibility that prefers fluid paint but applies the new color on a dry color. The sensibility of painting wet into wet, usually done in thickly impastoed oils, say by Philip Guston or de Kooning, is very much an antithesis to Fratt's idea of clear vibrating color. Cezanne had something of this dry placement of color in his later work.
Fratt draws and often makes small compositional sketches for her paintings. She uses collage as a freeing agent that is especially helpful to keep things moving. Collage serves as a way to play with ideas, the colors can be placed and removed at will. Yet her paintings from these collage ideas and sketches have to undergo the changes that scale and medium will dictate. Though her areas are clearly placed, Fratt allows each painting to have its own life of development. Unlike the idea of planning a color layout and then reproducing the well-defined areas that one feels in the work of, say, Frank Stella. Fratt lets the painting create its own form through the dictates of the work in progress.
The show has some stacked canvases which reflect this kind of development. Fratt didn't first decide to do "stacked" panels but the composition of her idea called for this device. When she first used these stacked forms she painted some in different sizes. Some were hung separately which allowed the wall to serve as a flotation area and, as she felt too dependent on the wall for this separate space, the stacked works moved into a format that placed them together. This early idea of the wall functioning as a flotation area may have been incorporated into the expansive inner areas of color that lie beneath the more gestured Iines and small color areas.
Fratt's expressive use of color seems in line with that of Matisse and Rothko. Rothko used color in a dualistic way to deal with "tragedy, ecstasy, doom" and to express pure color harmonies. He said of his paintings, "If you are moved only by their color relationships then you miss the point." Rothko probably was very sympathetic to the work of Matisse. The use of unifying planes of color to flatten space and the clarity and intuitive expressive color of Matisse is sympathetic to both Rothko and Fratt.
Though Fratt feels that Picasso did not concern himself with color in the way Matisse did, she is very interested in the way Picasso appreciated Matisse's color when he spoke of Matisse's ability to let color breathe:
“In Matisse's work when you find three tones that are put close to one another-let's say a green. a mauve, and a turquoise-their relationship evokes another color which one might call "the color".... You've heard Matisse say, "You need to leave each color its zone of expansion .... " It's not necessary for a color to have a determined form. It's not even desirable. What is important is the power of expansion. When it reaches a point a little beyond itself, the force of expansion takes over and you get a kind o! neutral zone to which the other color must come as it reaches the end of its course. At that moment you can say that color breathes. That's the way Matisse paints and that's why I said Matisse has such good lungs.”
The life pulse and breath of color is central to Fratt's work. Her attention to the value of color lifts one color in front of another. Fratt creates light by relationships between colors and through their value and shape.
Yet the peculiar heritage of Matisse in the so-called "French palette," the "French sensibility," is a force that Fratt has consciously tried to escape. Perhaps that's why she painted in America instead of Europe and why she is in the West today. She is an American painter concerned with seeing things always with a "fresh eye." She uses radiant color as the source and carrier of her evocations and forms.