ABSTRACT PAINTER Dorothy Fratt (1923-2017) spent most of her career in Phoenix. Until now, she has received limited critical and art historical attention beyond Arizona regional circles. But, as the art world has sought to reclaim women artists working in abstraction, Fratt’s work has been shown in recent exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. It also has been included in auctions at Christie’s alongside the likes of more well-known women artists of the era including Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Her history echoes that of other female abstractionists: an artist who sought to navigate the challenges of family and career, who found joy in teaching but sometimes sacrificed time that could have otherwise been spent on her own work, and who charted her own course eschewing the prescriptive labels ascribed by major critics of the era. She remained firmly detached from such criticism, and she dismissed labels for her work throughout her career. This choice to proceed on her own was described in an interview as a sort of personal pact. Fratt said, “I decided I would never reach the end of my life and be sorry that I didn’t do exactly what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to cater to the world or what people thought.” Despite her complicated position in the history of art, Fratt’s technical handling of color and space is evidence of an innovative artist whose heretofore absence from histories of abstraction deserves reconsideration.
Born Dorothy Miller, Fratt was the daughter of Hugh Miller who served as chief photographer at The Washington Post from the early 1930s until the late 1960s. Fratt showed early skill as an artist, and her parents encouraged her work. When she was 15, she won first prize in the Corcoran Gallery student show for her work Red Shoe (1938). She went on to study at Mount Vernon College, and she married in 1943. After the war, Fratt taught art history classes at her alma mater while also seeking to establish herself as a working artist.
Around that same time, Fratt competed for fellowships at both the Corcoran and the Phillips Gallery Art School. After receiving offers from both institutions, she ultimately chose the Phillips, where she studied with Karl Knaths. In interviews, Fratt noted that in her time working with Knaths, he exposed her to publications on color theory that would serve as an early springboard for her move toward abstraction. And, Knaths’s own cubist style certainly influenced Fratt’s work at the time. This can be seen in Coffee Break in the Washington Post Staff Room (1948). The work closely resembles Knaths’s own methods and sees Fratt begin to experiment with planar forms and space, while adopting a more abstracted approach to her subject matter. After her first solo exhibition in 1946 at the Washington D.C. City library, where, as she recalled she showed her “charming paintings,” she continued to move away from objective work. In response to one D.C. area gallerist’s dismissal of this turn, Dorothy simply replied, “Yes, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know why but I’ve got to walk down this road, that’s all I know. It may be a complete dead end, but I’ve got to do it and see if there’s anything there.”
When Fratt’s husband’s job transferred him to Phoenix in 1958, Fratt relocated to the West. According to Fratt friend and critical supporter Jean Lippman, Phoenix was a town known for its “cowboy art” aesthetic rather than the abstract techniques the artist favored. Nonetheless, she was immediately drawn to the city, noting in a later interview that it was “love at first sight.”
Over the next several years, Fratt sought to establish herself in the Phoenix art scene by submitting her abstract compositions for exhibitions despite limited interest. She recalled in an interview that in those early years, “I just couldn’t give my work away.” Fratt also maintained summer studio space at the Phillips during her first several years in the west. Those summer trips to D.C. allowed her to see work from her abstractionist peers and to maintain a connection, albeit tenuous, to the pulse of East Coast abstraction. She remarried in 1972 and moved to a house with dedicated studio space on the ridge of Camelback Mountain just north of Scottsdale, Arizona. Dorothy’s son, Greg Fratt, notes that after his mom remarried, life became easier. She was able to focus on the abstract work she loved for the next three decades.
Fratt’s work demonstrates a careful control and manipulation of color to create the Illusion of space on the two-dimensional support. In I Owe You (1997), Fratt chose one of her signature red grounds, arranging several colored shapes and marks across the canvas. A swooping gestural slash, in a subtle gradation of the hue used for the ground, creates a dizzying, flickering effect for the viewer. A bold, orange ovoid shape floats above; the addition of a deep green rectilinear shape at its center teases the eye in a spatial push-pull akin to those favored by abstractionists such as Hans Hoffmann. Other shapes in blues, black, light green and deep crimson further emphasize the spatial sensation in the work. Fratt once described such effects in her work as a kind of “katty-wampus space not restrained by geometry.”
Other paintings show a clear link to her dessert surroundings both through her chosen palette and use of suggestive titles. For Monsoon (1985), Fratt chose a vertical format consistent with historical modes of representing the landscape. In the painting, a bold, navy slashing mark, above, and a flat, orange, rectilinear shape, below, frame a sandy-hued area that takes up roughly two-thirds of the picture plane—a mesmerizing joining of sky and sand. An icy pink splash of color suggests a far-off mountain or mesa, while bold gestural marks hovering above may represent the encroaching storm clouds suggested by the title.
In the end, Fratt’s work is distinctly her own. She once noted, “I’ve always been out in left field. When everything was abstract expressionist, my stuff looked purist. When everything got into masking tape and untouched by human hands mine looked abstract expressionist. I’m not minimal enough to be a minimalist, there’s a lot more body in my work. But not enough to be an expressionist so there I am.” That last phrase says so much about Fratt and her work: “there I am.” She was content to make things her way, connected to her own place in the West and her own ideas. I’m hopeful that the art world is ready to meet her where she was.
“Dorothy Fratt: Paint the Town Red” opened in mid-November at Pazo Fine Art in South Kensington, Maryland, and will run through mid-January; the exhibition is Fratt’s first solo show in the D.C. area since the late 1940s. “Dorothy Fratt: Heading West”, a career retrospective at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, is set to open in September 2023 during what would have been the artist’s centennial year.