FRANK HERRMANN BOOK FOREWORD
by Robert K. Wallace,
Regents Professor of English, Northern Kentucky University
I came to know Frank Herrmann in the late 1990s because of our mutual interest in the evolving art of Frank Stella. In October 2002 I was amazed by his Thinking: Brazza River Skies and four other huge new paintings at the Linda Schwartz Gallery in Cincinnati. Each was painted in acrylic on canvas about seven feet square and emblazoned with Asmat shield rubbings. The shapes of the shields, the allover proliferation of motifs, the clash of hot and cool colors and of gestural painting and careful tracery—all of this provided the kind of “thinking” that is deeply infused with feeling and wonderment.
When I taught a course in Cross-Cultural Exploration the next semester with my colleague Tom Zaniello, I knew I had to get our students to see Frank’s work. Our course focused on the Pacific Rim, so Frank’s painting, directly inspired by the Asmat culture of New Guinea, would take us down to the very edge. His studio in the Northside neighborhood of Cincinnati was a powerhouse of revelation. We saw huge paintings and tiny ones, side-by-side with the books and shields that had inspired them. Frank said he was not sure where this all was leading him, but he clearly had found a mode of pictorial exploration that would sustain him for some time to come. We were all talking so excitedly as we drove away from the studio to the interstate that I found myself turning onto the exit—rather than entrance—ramp.
My most recent exposure to Frank’s Asmat art was in his exhibition at Northern Kentucky University in August and September 2009. Ten large works, similar in scale to those I had seen seven years earlier, opened up new worlds of color, form, and feeling. Floating from one to another was pictorial pleasure of the highest kind. Frank’s abstract aesthetic was now absorbing evocations of the human figure, of the natural landscape, and even of the written word. Figure and ground, imagistic shape and gestural texture, personal expression and global expansiveness, hieroglyphic skies and blood-red forms and motifs—all such elements mixing and blending in a continuous visual energy pulsing across and through the canvas and into the viewer on such a scale can take one’s breath away.
In one painting you have the dense weave of the warrior shield filling the entire canvas as an allover foreground, continuously interesting in spite of its minimalist materials because its cognitive mystery is deepened by the strength of its negative space. Another painting does have a
more traditional foreground / background landscape feel, but its curving river around a rock formation under an energized sky feels more like a place you might see in a dream—an abstract landscape in which every tingling pore must keep alive if you are to take in its full measure of
beauty or escape from some treacherous turn. In another painting, the word “Asmat” is itself laid onto the landscape, in huge oversized thick creamy letters, the kind we would write to our first love in our junior high yearbook if we had room to do it, giving this particular dreamscape a
local habitation and a name that it no way reduces its mystery or abstract evocative power.
You don’t see it until you are very close, your nose near the canvas, but some of the imagery from the Asmat warrior shields is, rather than painted on the canvas, pasted over it. Herrmann has rubbed the design of the shield onto the skin of a paper, transferring the Asmat artist’s spirit with his own hand and eye to a graphic sheet of his own making before embedding it in the painted canvas ground. The physicality of this tactile transmission gives Herrmann the sense that he is in some way participating in the Asmat culture at the same time that he is appropriating it for his own expression. This tactile act is his equivalent of Herman Melville’s famous 1850 assertion that “genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” The Asmat wood carvers who delivered that “shock of recognition” helped Herrmann achieve his own pictorial equivalent of another declaration by Melville in that same essay. The “great Art of Telling the Truth,” Melville writes, comes only to the artist who can trust “those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality.”(1) Early in 2003, Tom and I and our students had seen Frank Herrmann opening himself up to the deep far-away things, the flashing intuitive truths, and the quick probings at the very axis of reality.
The “shock of recognition” from the Asmat wood carver that reenergized Herrmann’s art also recalls the most dramatic moment in White-Jacket, the novel Melville published in 1850. When the narrator falls from the yard-arm of the ship and plunges deep into the sea, he involuntarily sees a sequence of abstract colors that make him wonder “whether I was yet dead, or still dying.” He is jolted back to life by “some formless form [that] brushed my side—some inert, coiled fish of the sea.” This alien touch restores “the thrill of being alive” and White- Jacket rises to the surface a new man. (2) The anonymous Asmat war-shield artist was the “coiled fish of the sea” whose “formless forms” shocked Frank Herrmann back into pictorial life.
1 Herman Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860 (Evanston
and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987), pp. 249, 244.
2 White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the
Newberry Library, 1970), pp. 392-94.