An exhibit of works by the late abstract impressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler is in its final days at the New Britain Museum of American Art. On Thursday, the Judy Dworin Performance Project, a Hartford-based dance and theater ensemble, will perform a new work inspired by Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1990-2003.
It’s a surreal scene outside on the grounds of the New Britain Museum of American Art on a chilly April morning. Half a dozen or so dancers from the Judy Dworin Performance Project are going through their warmups as giant snowflakes swirl around them. Practicing in the snow is just another chapter to this story, a journey that started before the lockdown, when founder Judy Dworin was asked about the possibility of creating a small work to accompany the Frankenthaler exhibit.
“I started to dive into her work, and as I became immersed in it, I became so totally inspired by it, and it felt like it wasn’t going to be a small piece, it was actually going to be a full evening piece,” said Dworin. “And we embarked on our first rehearsal just about a week before we had to go shelter at home. And so that marked the beginning of an amazing process that has involved enormous pivoting.”
Dworin explained that her ensemble works collaboratively -- everyone brings ideas to the table. So, with everyone staying safe at home, they turned to Zoom to make this dance come together. Alexa Melonopoulos Fleury, a member of the Judy Dworin Performance Project, said Zoom allowed her to literally immerse herself in the art of Helen Frankenthaler.
“So, what I would do is take a photo of the painting to create a digital backdrop, and I would get inside the painting,” said Fleury, “which was really fun and interesting because you always go to a museum, and for me I always want to jump inside the painting, I would want to touch it, I want to feel it. So, it was really great to have that digital aspect, to kind of be able to do something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid.”
It’s easy to get immersed in the work of the Frankenthaler. The New York-born artist was inspired early in her career by other abstract impressionists, especially Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But rather than imitate, Frankenthaler forged her own path in the art world, according to Lisa Williams, associate curator of the New Britain Museum of American Art.
“Rather than priming her canvas, or covering it with gesso to protect the canvas surface, she leaves it unprimed, so that when she pours her paint it is actually soaking the canvas, it stains the canvas, and so she’s able to achieve these incredibly translucent, transparent colors, organic forms, and she pushes the color in spontaneous ways,” said Williams.
Dworin and her ensemble found plenty of inspiration from Frankenthaler -- not only in her colorful paintings, but also how she painted them. Frankenthaler viewed the act of painting as a performance in and of itself, and there are many photographs of her crouched over the canvas on the floor, sometimes stretching to yoga-like positions to pour paint in the middle of the canvas.
“I think that when one looks at photographs of Helen painting, and also film of her painting, it is an extremely physical act,” said Dworin. “For years she was painting on the floor with huge canvases. That physicality became very evident and clear in the way that we approached the work.”
“We all loved how she worked, with the canvases on the floor, and with throwing the paint,” said Fleury. “And we were able to see a lot of pictures of Helen in the midst of painting, which also was included [in] some of our group phrase work. So, you’ll see some phrases where we are actually mimicking Helen painting.”
Like so many of the stories we’ve heard during COVID, there were a lot of blessings in disguise. Dworin said being forced to work through Zoom with her dancers shaped the structure of the piece, and it also helped the dancers keep a sense of camaraderie. Dworin said delving into the work of Helen Frankenthaler was the perfect COVID project.
“Her work provided for all of us a sense of color and hopefulness in a very dark time,” she said. “And I think there’s been something extraordinarily healing in this process, not only for the company itself, but for people that have come to our open Zoom rehearsals. People have remarked time and again about the idea of light in the dark, and this work providing something that is very positive and healing.”
“ColorFields Outdoors” is the name of the dance piece inspired by Helen Frankenthaler. It will be performed by the Judy Dworin Performance Project on the grounds of the New Britain Museum of American Art Thursday morning at 10:30 and later that evening at 6:30.
The exhibit Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1990-2003 will be on view at the museum through May 23.