HELEN FRANKENTHALER’S LIBERATED ABSTRACTIONS CHARTED A NEW PATH FOR PAINTING

Helen Frankenthaler, Before the Caves, 1958.©2020 HELEN FRANKENTHALER/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/BERKELEY ART MUSEUM

Helen Frankenthaler’s abstractions, often made by staining vibrant hues into unprimed canvas, have captured the minds of many, even if at one point, their aesthetic charm was once considered a demerit. “She is too proficient about beauty,” the critic Sanford Schwartz once wrote. On the occasion of a 1960 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, in a review that personally rankled Frankenthaler and her friends, ARTnews critic Anna Seelye wrote, “All of the paintings are nervous and therefore distracting.” Others poked fun at her work, comparing her canvases to wet rags.

These days, it is hard to imagine anyone lobbing these kinds of insults at Frankenthaler, who is now considered one of the most important Abstract Expressionists. With her expansive paintings featuring forms that many have compared to landscapes and natural elements, she engineered a style that tended toward large swaths of color that were allowed to bleed into the canvas.

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