My favourite painting: Tarka Russell

The director of London's Timothy Taylor Gallery enthuses about the connection between Heaven and Earth depicted in this gigantic, colourful work.

Tarka Russell on Jacob’s Ladder by Helen Frankenthaler

‘This work’s reference to the connection between Earth and Heaven is very personal to me. When I look at it, I see the light, perspective and an abundance of colour. I think it references the external world and the connection between humans and God; the ladder is the connection.

‘The title of this work refers to the Biblical character Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah. As described in the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching towards Heaven. Speaking about this work, Frankenthaler said: “The picture developed (bit by bit while I was working on it) into shapes symbolic of an exuberant figure and ladder, therefore Jacob’s Ladder.’

Tarka Russell is the director of Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Frankenthaler and Jacob’s Ladder

Imagine the scale of this oil painting: it is more than 9ft tall and nearly 6ft wide. When you stand in front of it at MoMA in New York, it towers over you, filling your eyes with riffs of muted colour. Rising from a cool base of sage, marine blue and forest green, there’s an explosion of mauve and terracotta as the paint seems to arc its way up the canvas until its sky-high finale of dusky pink flicks, drips and pools of colour.

Helen Frankenthaler started to thin her oil paint with turpentine in 1952, allowing it to act like watercolour and seep into the raw canvas, becoming part of the surface rather than sitting on top. Although she was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s exuberant drip paintings and was part of New York’s Abstract Expressionist scene, her works offered a completely different take on colour and form. Her unprimed canvas became an active surface as colours stained, whorled, licked and feathered it, and her unique style led to the development of colour field painting.

Frankenthaler never liked to prescribe meaning. The Biblical title was added because she felt the uplift of the paint suggested a ladder climbing towards Heaven. If anything, she drew her inspiration from the landscape, the way it connected to the sky, its lack of symmetry, its organic growth. ‘My work is not a matter of direct translations, but something is bound to creep into your head or heart.’

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