Dorothy Fratt lived there and worked there.
An observer can’t help wanting to make a connection.
Look at the edges of her mature paintings from the late 1970s and 80s through the 2000s when Fratt (1923–2017) had found her unique artistic voice marrying abstract painting with Southwestern landscapes. Notice all the attention paid to the edges. The very edges.
Seemingly stray marks appear in danger of falling off the picture plane. Bits of color hanging to the canvas for dear life.
What are they doing there? So close to the side. The middle is baren, the edges hold the action.
Fratt was born and raised in Washington, D.C.–the arts mainstream. The National Gallery and The Phillips Collection, monuments and sculptures around every corner. Art schools and art teachers. She was a prodigy, winning first place in an exhibition at the esteemed Corcoran Gallery of Art at age 15.
Fratt hooked up with the influential Washington Color School artists in the 1950s. She was squarely in the scene.
But in 1958 her husband’s job transferred him to Phoenix and so she went too. Phoenix of the 1950s bears no resemblance to the Phoenix of today with all its professional sports teams and museums and airport flying around the world nonstop. In 1950, Phoenix had just over 100,000 residents, 99th most in the United States. Today, the city is the nation’s 5th most populous.
Phoenix was on the periphery of America when Fratt showed up in 1958.
After working through all the various styles of Modern art she would explore in a career that began as a pre-teen, was it artist and place as periphery inspiring her paintings with their wonderfully strange attention to their edges.
“Dorothy Fratt: Color Mirage” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through July 21, 2024, let’s guests ponder the question for themselves.
From D.C. To Phoenix To Scottsdale
“Color Mirage” marks the first major U.S. museum exhibition on Fratt. It appropriately occurs in Scottsdale, next door to Phoenix, where the artist moved in 1972.
The presentation features more than 40 paintings and 10 serigraphs in her distinct abstract style, but also a variety of earlier landscape watercolors, sumi ink drawings, figurative paintings, ephemera, and formative works from as early as 1938. Upending the art world’s traditional “father/husband as artist, daughter/wife as manager,” Fratt’s son Gregory Fratt has worked tirelessly in organizing his mother’s estate. His archive proved essential in putting the show together.
As with most artists who came to the desert dating back to Maynard Dixon and Georgia O’Keeffe, Fratt was deeply influenced by the stark visuals.
“Fratt expressed that she preferred painting when situated in the atmospheric and expansive environment of the desert,” Lauren R. O’Connell, curator of contemporary art at SMoCA and exhibition co-curator, told Forbes.com. “She was pursuing a sense of freedom through her art that resulted in the development of profound artistic philosophies. Fratt used terms such as ‘dialogues,’ ‘peripheral edge,’ and ‘floating phantoms’ to describe her paintings, inferring a dialectic between people, environment, and intuition.”
“While her work can be likened to New York’s Color Field and Washington Color School movements, Fratt’s paintings are delineated by her singular approach to abstraction that highlights the emotive and intuitive qualities of life on the periphery,” O’Connell added. “Fratt’s paintings are abstract representations of life in the Southwest, which was very different from the popular cowboy art that dominated the region’s art scene in the mid to late 20th century.”
Scottsdale has long referred to itself as “the West’s most Western town.” Ed Mell’s dynamic Jack Knife sculpture of a bucking bronc and cowboy takes center stage in a roundabout in the city’s gallery district, blocks from SMoCA and Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West.
Fratt was inspired by the West, but not inspired to paint cactus or cattle drives. Not with her deep connection to the avant-garde from childhood. She wanted to prove Western could also be contemporary, and at one point worked with city officials to commission a major public artwork by sculptor Louise Nevelson, “Windows to the West.”
“Fratt played a major role in shaping the contemporary art scene in Phoenix and Scottsdale,” Jennifer McCabe, SMoCA director and chief curator and “Color Mirage” co-curator, told Forbes.com. “Her exhibition history extends back to 1938, but she showed her paintings consistently from the time she arrived in Arizona in the late 1950s until her death in 2017. In 2000, she was honored with the Arizona Governor’s Artist of the Year Award, speaking to her remarkable contributions as an artist, teacher, mentor, and so much more.”
As the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2024–February 14 to be exact–Fratt proves the perfect choice in marking the occasion.
On The Periphery, Off The Edge
The problem with the periphery is that not everyone notices. Scottsdale is a long way from Chelsea. Fratt’s original, inventive body of work was produced so far from anything that could have been considered an arts center that she was mostly ignored outside her home.
“Absolutely her geographic location impacted her larger artworld visibility,” McCabe said. “Although Fratt was a prominent feature in the local Arizona artist ecosystem, she lived at a time when fewer people were looking to cities beyond New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago for art. Luckily, the field has opened up and is more interested in diversity and inclusivity now.”
And quality, wherever it may be found.
The 20th century mainstream American art world–the big museums, curators, critics and collector were every bit as biased geographically as they were racially and with gender. For many–most?–if it didn’t come from New York, it wasn’t good.
“Showcasing the work of an artist who operated outside of the artworld center creates a richer understanding of what these (art canonical) oversights have left out,” McCabe said. “As the artist herself understood, peripheral vision—that which occurs outside the point of fixation—is a crucial aspect of seeing. To consider the edge of a painting, as she so often did, or the fringe of a movement, is to consider a more complete and inclusive view.”
Back to the edges again. The margins. The periphery.
“As the twenty-first century has progressed, more and more social reckonings are underway, and, in the artworld, this translates to more attention being paid to previously underrecognized artists,” McCabe added. “As the field of art history slowly opens its frame of reference to women, people of color, queer artists, neurodiverse artists, and more, artists such as Dorothy Fratt are coming into view.”
If you know where to look, which often includes the periphery, literally and figuratively in the case of Dorothy Fratt.
“In her artworks, she placed a lot of focus on the edges,” McCabe said. “She understood that the periphery was as important as the center, and so it’s nice to see others are catching up to her on that idea!”