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Words to the wise: Q & A with Dana Frankfort

The painter Dana Frankfort is known in the art world for her word paintings, which manage to invoke color-field, graffiti, and graphic art in an exultant chorus that feels fresh, moving, and very, very alive. “The words,” observed New York … Read More

By / October 17, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

The painter Dana Frankfort is known in the art world for her word paintings, which manage to invoke color-field, graffiti, and graphic art in an exultant chorus that feels fresh, moving, and very, very alive.

“The words,” observed New York Times art critic Roberta Smith of Frankfort’s first solo show in 2005, “usually rendered in large, blocky letters that fill the canvases, glide in and out of view, a little like towering neon signs seen through fog. ‘Now’ emerges from a field of yellow, as ‘Hallelujah’ does from a horizontal blur of red-pink-orange, and ‘Yes’ from a small square of progressively greener greens. Other less distinctive works use exuberant but more notational writing to broadcast phone numbers, list the days of the week or exclaim, ‘For the Love of God.’”

Frankfort’s latest show, DF, ran at Bellwether Gallery in Chelsea from late September through early October. In it, she moved further into her word work but also introduced a (controversial) new subject: Stars of David. Jews have expressed indifference to, contempt for, and revulsion at these new paintings, which attempt to bring the much-maligned (but not oft-painted!) symbols into high-art context.

I first met Frankfort at the least likely bastion of artistic genius imaginable: Camp Ramah in California. 

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How did you come to the use of words in your paintings?

I’ve always been interested in color field painting. In grad school I was painting abstract, large, geometric fields of color. I came to realize that my decisions were arbitrary. There was no reason why I was putting red next to yellow — it was based on what I liked, and that wasn’t enough. I needed something to back up my decision.

I was freaking out and I stopped painting. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I was lost. Mel Bochner — a teacher of mine — told me to just paint what I know. That simplified everything. It was months before I made a painting again, but then I started painting my name. Because I knew my name. I was going through a personal crisis – getting divorced – and things were falling apart. Then I started painting my address. And my studio number. Things I knew. Facts I could rely on. Old prayers I had to memorize in Day School. I was positive that these things existed. It was a way of working myself through an existential crisis. I could rely on these things. A yellow circle and a pink circle were meaningless but I knew my name.

And how did this early work evolve?

I was interested in born again religion/spirituality. I was taking a class on Hasidic Judaism in grad school. Looking at the art like revival. This minister Howard Finster — he painted signs to get people to believe in Jesus. And having grown up in Texas I’m used to seeing Jesus shit everywhere. I just really liked the idea of a billboard that would speak to me personally — so I was sort of painting my own billboards. What I wanted my billboards to say. I also like Marsden Hartley.

So you started to think more about color in that context?

Yeah.

How do you pick words now?

It’s still the paint what you know thing. If you look at paintings from my most recent show, “Possibly Permanent” refers to the painting itself, to words, to me, to you… It’s coming out of an existential place. “Lines” refers to the formal aspect of a painting — lines can come together to form a word or a star or just come apart to be abstract.

People (including me; see above) often invoke graffiti art in describing your work. What's the connection as you see it between graffiti and your word paintings?

Whatever.
You’ve begun to explore the Star of David as a recurring symbol. What led you there?

I was interested in the idea that a word is made up of lines and becomes a symbol in itself. But there’s never an original, and same with a star. I like the idea that a star can’t be original. It’s a symbol that anyone can draw and have. There are finite ways of arranging lines into a star. What are the challenges and rewards of trying to address such an iconic symbol? What are some pitfalls you'd like to avoid, and what's the ideal aim? How might people begin to see the star anew?

There’s a huge history of Christian art, but a relatively small history of Jewish art. And associations with the Star of David are pretty much lame and tired – like the Holocaust. I had a personal goal — could I make a Star of David not look lame in a painting? Jewish art doesn’t have the same history as Christian art because you’re not allowed to render the image of a figure — it’s sacrilege.

The Star of David — no one knows where it comes from, what its origins are, for sure. Its earliest association with Judaism is believed to have been on King David’s shield — the bolster/support behind his shield were these interlocking triangles.

What's the reaction been to the star paintings?

Artists have been very excited about them. Dealers, too. People wanted to show them before they were done. This gallery in Belgium where I’m having a show in February — in a city where there’s been a lot of religious tension — are really excited about showing the stars. The harshest response has come from collectors. The stars have been slow to sell. One collector told my gallery that, though she thought the star paintings were beautiful, she was “too much of a self-hating Jew” to buy one.

 

My favorite of the stars are the orange and purple — in the orange the star is really not immediately apparent; it’s revealed through brush strokes rather than color. And the purple is partially painted over. So it’s almost like you’re avoiding the most overt representation (the Israeli-flag-type of star, wham). Is that a commentary on “self-hatred”?

No, it’s about color field painting and form and the idea of lines coming together to make meaning and then falling apart into elements. And about the star as a symbol without there being one original. But I guess a person could psychoanalyze that.

 

 

You’ve been influenced by the color field painters, right?

I want to name my first son Morris after Morris Lewis.

So — Rothko, Lewis, Reinhart, Franz Kleinz: Jews. Do you think it’s interesting — out of this religion that frowns on representational images of the figure of man (whatever that may be) comes a group of painters who paint abstract blocks of color?

Morris Lewis was a genius. Underrated. A lot of stuff has been written about Rothko and Jewish philosophy. And I do think it’s interesting: the spirituality represented by those paintings. But there were a lot of non-Jews making abstract paintings too. Sort of like how there are a lot of Jewish writers, but writing isn’t a uniquely Jewish thing… Of your first solo show, “What’s So Funny” (at Brooklyn Fire Proof gallery in Williamsburg, 2005), New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said: “She has gained enough access to her medium to make one curious about what will come next.”

Now, Smith has weighed in a second time: “Some shows have ‘back to the drawing board’ written all over them, and Dana Frankfort’s Chelsea debut is one… Ms. Frankfort has put down stakes where painting and language meet, but a greater effort is needed.”

Seems like she was invested in your career and is being extra harsh now. How do reviews affect you, if at all?

Reviews are very important, career-wise. And also, it’s nice to be a part of the dialogue. But I’m gonna keep painting either way, so they don’t matter in terms of whether I’m going to be a painter, you know? I’m not making paintings for anyone else. But in the art world people care about that shit.

These days I feel a lot more comfortable tossing out what is written. It’s artists opinions that matter to me; other painters. Those are truly whose opinions matter. Old professors, grad school colleagues. A small, tight group. First thing I do when I’m having trouble with a painting is call those people into my studio. The critics have their own agenda.

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Got a spare twenty grand lying around? Buy a Frankfort! Contact Bellwether Gallery for details.

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