dorothy fratt:

unexpected intrusions

by Rudolf Baranik, 1980

In a painting called "Purple Spot" an amoeboid form floats in a cool grey sea. Languorous glowing, the violet form sets off a lyrical dialog with the silent ground. And this alone would suffice; this alone creates a statement of delicate beauty. But Dorothy Fratt, who painted this work in 1978, does not let it rest. She asks: "What would happen if…”(1) And what this constant wonderment brings is gentle intrusions, knocks at the door. They come unexpectedly, yet they accommodate themselves with authority: an electric blue spot floats in from the bottom edge to tease the larger violet shape; a luminous light red comes in from the right, near the top, to test the waters. And others seem to come from the left, barely entering, stopped while they are making up their minds. Similarly, in "Green Tease" (1979) a cool green soft rectangle, suspended in a warmer green field, is soothed by a reclining blue strip above, which tells the rectangle: ''Rest, rest…” while from the edges impertinent intruders, a snippity light green and our old friend, the glowing red spot, say: "Wait!" Here a veritable visual intrigue is encountered: altered by the invaders from the outlying provinces, our eye is opened to other possibilities, -we wait, we suspect, and we actually see shapes the artist never painted. 

 

What these works have in common with Op-art is less important than what they say in a unique way. Here tranquility is subverted but the subversion is not caprice. On the contrary, the subversion tends to strengthen the main message, the lyrical color field of light. The counterpoint asserts itself only to be submerged. How does it happen? 

 

One reason is that color is always used as color, never as a subservient carrier of other aims. Thus a line is not a line but a channel for color; no matter how thin, and a spot is not a spot but a beleaguered island of color, no matter how small. Harry Wood described Fratt's use of color: (2) 

"Although they (the colors) ignite each other with their brilliance, they seem to melt together, with the inevitability and ease of natural law." 

 

The inevitability grows out from the artist's gift. She is a true colorist, a talent one can perfect, sharpen, extend, but not learn. Both tasteful and restless, Dorothy Fratt swings easily (better yet: unknowingly) between moody harmony and quasi-Op vibra­tion. Often the extremes co-exist in the same work and some­times as in "Cinder Mountain" (1972) the impulse of brooding romanticism takes over and forbids anything else to enter. 

 

Like all sensitive colorists, Fratt is concerned with the expres­sive power of color, not color as phenomenon. I take that to mean that the expressiveness of color, its impulse of emotion and its gestalt of mood stand above, and are immune to, precise analysis by scientific investigation or psychological speculation. These two endeavors, investigation and speculation, have their own interest. But they can often stand in the way of, or even vulgarize, the sensing of color, a deeper though more illusive way of seeing. No wonder Fratt hails intuition. She writes: (3)

"You think you want to do something, you start painting, and all of a sudden you are looking at a different kind of painting. You don't really know how you got there…” 

 

Such focus on the sheer joy - and acid hurting - of color is rare now in American painting: it lives in the work of such color­ists as James Brooks, Ellsworth Kelly and Budd Hopkins; it is an important part of pattern painting; it plays a role in the new image painting of the young generation. But in pattern painting color shares attention with and lives embedded in, linear intricacy; in the new image painting it competes with the sheer materiality of the medium. Brooks, Kelly, Hopkins and Fratt are artists of one love. They are the linear descendants (Brooks also a colleague) of Baziotes Gottlieb and Rothko to whom color and emotive language are almost one. 

 

There are other parallels. Frankenthaler's seas and moun­tains, Kenzo Okada's off-balance constructions, even the luminous spaces of Morris Louis and Jules Olitski. And one aspect is, surely, Arizona light mixed with a feminine response to nature. And this brings up the inevitable question which arises about any artist who lives and works outside of the creative center of her time­ - in this case - New York. Is Dorothy Fratt an "Arizona painter" as she has been described on occasion? Is she a regional painter? I think not. To make this clear is not to make a value judgement, rather it is an observation of aesthetic fact. Clearly, the harsh colors of Arizona's blazing days and the gentle severity of cool moonlit nights have something to do with Fratt's "color as emotion.” But Fratt signals the deeper impulses of her work 

when she says: (4) 

"Right now - on the present work - the dark paintings don't look unhappy to me - only peaceful. Perhaps lonely - but at least peaceful.” 

 

I believe that the dark peace, a mood which is silent but also foreboding, has roots in more than local color. One can look down from comfortable Camel mountain and see a heart-rending world. The artist may call a work "Red Mesa" but it is more than the surface she paints. 

 

This is the way all strong art is born: immediate observation or new experience must fuse with our embedded past, the visual walking dreams of our memories, dormant but not lost. To the artist immediate observation is valid only when it touches a chord in an internalized visual consciousness. There lies the difference between the picturesque and the expressive, and Fratt has certainly avoided the former; and that not because she is abstract (one can be abstract and picturesque) but because each one of her works speaks of an experience which is both fresh and continuous. 

 

The changes within the continuity of Fratt's work are formal. While some recent works try to establish a focal depth and concept of free space, she is clearly committed to a playful peripheral vision and what she calls ''a kind of Katty-wampus space not restrained by geometry." 

 

Unrestrained by geometry and freed of the grid, the surface tensions are given a chance to vary. It is as if the artist gave each painting the civil right to be true to its own character. And so while "Purple Spot" and "Green Tease,” discussed earlier, claim their tensions with bravado and every wit, "Night Vision" (1978) and "Grey Presence" (1979) suppress the obvious tensions: grey holistic fields are entered gently by cool bluish shapes which disturb the total calm with great care. And in "Night's Measure" (1979) the silence is nearly complete. 

 

Finally, these lines Leo Steinberg wrote are appropriate here. He said: (5) 

"You can, as an artist, try to say something big about life; or be content to make the stuff in your hands come to life. And this humbler task is the greater, for all else merely follows.”

 

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NOTES

1)    In a letter to the author, December, 1979

2)    Scottsdale Daily Progress, April 19, 1974

3)    In a letter to the author, December, 1979

4)    Ibid

5)    "Other Criteria" Oxford University Press, 1975

© 2020 Dorothy Fratt