Helen Frankenthaler at Turner Contemporary

Even if, by lifting two artists from different times and places out of their context, you run the risk of misrepresenting what they are about it can be interesting; you might visually connect the Romantic Sublime to modern abstraction by comparing Turner with Rothko for example - but in what sense might he be meaningfully compared to the Rothko’s younger American contemporary Helen Frankenthaler?

There is no real evidence that she looked at or was influenced by Turner’s work and by focusing selectively on work that displays a common liking for saturated colour and vaporous atmosphere the comparison runs the risk of showing up her aqueous colour fields as overblown and under resolved. There is also a danger of misreading them as landscapes. It’s difficult, when primed by Turner’s nearby seascapes, not to read ‘Overture’ 1992 (above) as a dark sea beneath a turbulent green sky; likewise ‘The Bay’ (1963) which is less obviously a coastal location as a reservoir of fathomless blue pigment contained in a canvas field. This is as unhelpful to her as to Turner, whose later work, from ‘The Evening Star’ (below) to his small ‘colour beginnings’ were never intended as abstractions, or prototypical colour field paintings, but as specific studies of light effects at a certain time of day in a particular place. Putting two artists together should allow you to return to each with fresh eyes, or at least with an altered perspective, but here the gulf remains too wide between the sharp tonality of one and the loose gestural staining of the other.

Frankenthaler’s work is about the surface itself, the way raw canvas receives poured paint and how it either runs and disperses over it or is absorbed into its fibres. Turner by contrast conjures up space, whether in the empty deep horizon of 'Evening Star' or the smokey wisps of cloud floating through a yellow tinted sky. The colour is equivalent to light rather than a thing in itself. They might both employ washing and staining but the intention differs – Frankenthaler chooses to let the action reveal the image where Turner seeks to represent the impact of observable phenomena: she remains wedded to Greenberg, he to nature. Frankenthaler was working at a particular moment in New York, proceeding from Pollock’s gestural movements to the project she shared with Morris Louis and others in dissolving the separation between canvas support and image. Her only backward glance is to Edward Manet, another master of surface effect; otherwise if the curator wanted a dialogue between her and a British painter (notwithstanding the name of the gallery) then Roger Hilton or Patrick Heron might have served him better.

Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner. Turner Contemporary Margate Uk, until 11 May 2014