Painter extraordinaire Frank Herrmann means what he says. In a 2016 interview, Herrmann stated: “Never wait for the great idea or wait for the perfect moment when the work has stalled. You have to work through those moments, that may be depressing but just keep working.”1
Herrmann takes his own advice; his vivid new exhibition of paintings on canvas and small watercolors on paper directly evolve from a critical juncture in his art making. It was 2011 and Frank felt he had fully explored a particular theme in his paintings to which he was committed for a number of years. Walking outside of his studio one day, he realized it was time to take a radically different path and so he doggedly began painting small watercolors in great number, freeing up with a medium that is both daunting, as it is fresh and spontaneous. “Watercolors got me back on track.”2
In these essential early watercolors, the wonderful shapes and symbols from his long and well-known Asmat series, loosened, opened up, swirled and drifted into the distance; the water as much a vehicle for change as the paint was a vehicle for intention. From the puddles and pools of color that naturally formed in these tiny watercolors, the artist developed his current buoyant series. A pool, a droplet of water, a vessel, a pod – each viewer brings her or his own interpretation of what the central form of his paintings is, or could become.
The paintings are varied in chromatic complexity and thus in tone. There is the crazy colorful Buoyant-13 (“Sometimes I Clown” James Brown) with hot red jagged borders barely holding in the vessel/pod/droplet with its goofy thick circles of color – Picasso’s Harlequins on steroids. There is Buoyant-14, all early morning misty pinks, blues, grays and a subdued vessel/pod/droplet a subtle blue, still holding in its tender body the moisture of the night that has just passed. Buoyant-10 and 11 have the same striking azure-hued vessel/pod/droplet, but in each painting, the background is so different, we can imagine that this magical form is a giver of life (or primordial water?) to distant parched landscapes.
So Herrmann is back to landscapes, whence he came. In our interview, he conveyed that he really never strayed far from his undergraduate landscape sensibility, always imagined abstractly, but landscapes as his governing form. Figure. Ground. Sky. By the time he was in graduate school, in the early 1970’s, he took the plunge into using acrylics, which at the time were hot hot hot and new new new. He never turned back. He paints aggressively with acrylics, like St. George battling the Dragon. It is evident as you view the paintings. The paint does not seduce us. Herrmann is not trying to coax the fast drying paint into tender blends and soft gradations as one might easily do with the more malleable medium of oil paint. He knows the toughness of acrylics, the fast drying capacity, useful only if you can wield your brush fast enough. Fast enough to make the paint dizzy and magical. This he does.
Buoyant-13 (“Sometimes I Clown” James Brown) demonstrates Herrmann’s ongoing studio discipline and his humor. Over time, he saved the dried paint at the bottom of jars of acrylic paint. He just couldn’t pitch these circular pads of dried-out pure color. Because he always takes risks with his paintings, he had a “why not?” moment and made this 81 ½ by 69 inch canvas full of thick circles of dried acrylic color that he collaged on top of the painted forms. The painting is pure fun yet, as you look closely, you notice that the casual thick circles of color are smaller at the top of the vessel/pod/droplet just as the design on an ancient vase would be more delicate at the neck of the vase than it would be on the body of the vase. The change in scale of the circles of color further is suggesting that the vessel/pod/droplet is shifting slightly back into space, the kind of warped space of Surrealism. This gives this fun and aggressive form movement as well as vividness. The red jagged shapes flanking the central form seem to be breaking up as the form rises to the surface, kissing the air above earth’s magma. In his new Buoyant Series, Herrmann flirts with the placement of the top of the vessel/pod/droplet. Mostly, it rigidly hits the horizon line. In a few paintings, like the watercolors Buoyant-1 and Buoyant-37, the central form hovers below the strict horizon line. In one of the acrylic paintings, like Buoyant-7 (The Slippage) the central form likewise is a whisper below the horizon. I wish he would play more with this placement, which too often is exactly at the horizon line. Yet, if it broke the horizon line, the central form could read too much like a buoy at sea. Below the horizon line, the central form can have a very varied life in its aquatic or terrestrial home.
The star painting in this exhibition is Buoyant-12 (Chrysalis and Shafts) a 90 by 72 inch acrylic and oil on canvas. Herrmann worked on this complex painting on and off for over two years. Interestingly, he used oil paint as the yellow textured band of sky at the top of the painting. This long gestation serves the painting superbly. It is enigmatic. Herrmann gives us “chrysalis” so we know the central form is such. The chrysalis is more organic and has a less simplified contour than other central forms in other of his paintings. The chrysalis is layered and the organism within is beginning to emerge from its veiled layers. But quite disturbing are the shafts behind the chrysalis, which should be shafts of light and Herrmann says that in the preliminary watercolors they were shafts of light. But the constant working on the painting to make it work to his satisfaction caused these shafts to ossify. They are minerals or composites of materials we might know, or not know. They plunge into the swirling waters. Is this Genesis?
Behind all these marvelous tough new paintings are countless watercolor studies and other paintings on canvas that led to these paintings. So much of what an artist does is unseen. The experimental work that leads to the satisfying paintings. The disasters that give way to the new fresh paintings. The experiments with materials (like soot and brick dust mixed into the acrylics when Frank and his wife did remodeling.) He didn’t throw out dried paint at the bottom of paint jars, why should he sweep away good brick dust? (Lee Bonticou made brilliant drawings from soot.) Herrmann keeps looking, keeps thinking, keeps using what is at hand. From this he gives us tough new paintings.
1Interview Arts Illustrated online
November 11, 2016.
2Interview with author, December 16, 2017.
Kay Walkingstick, whose solo exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute I reviewed for March 2017 Aeqai is discussed in October 2017 Art in America.
“Kerry James Marshall” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA, is named one of top ten exhibits in LA for 2017 by Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times. My review of Marshall’s exhibit, which premiered in Chicago, is featured in the May 2016 Aeqai.
–Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and Professor Emerita-Art living in Cincinnati, Oh.