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Celebrated American artist Helen Frankenthaler is focus of exhibit at USF Contemporary Art Museum

Paintings hang on grey walls in art gallery.
In addition to producing paintings on canvas and paper, Frankenthaler worked in a wide range of media, including ceramics, sculpture, and printmaking.

As early as 1959, Frankenthaler became a regular presence in major international exhibitions. She won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris that year, and had her first major museum exhibition in 1960.

Helen Frankenthaler once said there are no rules to art.

It's a philosophy that allowed the artist to experiment and create her soak-stain technique, in which she would thin oil paint with turpentine to the consistency of watercolor and then pour it onto an unprimed canvas.

"Usually when artists start to work on canvas, they paint it with this kind of gluey substance that closes up the pores of the canvas,” said Margaret Miller, Director of the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum.

“But Helen really wanted them to stay open so that the paint would sink in to that surface, almost staining it."

Now widely regarded as one of America's most influential artists, Frankenthaler was one of the few women to break through at a time when the art world was still dominated by men.

Black and white image of Helen Frankenthaler in art gallery
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
Helen Frankenthaler, whose career spanned six decades, has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century.

She was an important figure among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and is widely credited for playing a key role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting and Lyrical abstraction.

"It's sort of post abstract expressionism which was more robust,” said Miller. “Lyrical abstraction is more painterly, and in some ways more refined in terms of the line and the forms. She became very known for that and I think influenced other artists, and certainly her work is in every major museum collection."

The exhibit at USFCAM was inspired by a recent major gift to the museum.

"The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation gave to just university-based museums and they had to be collections that had a focus on printmaking, and of course USF has a focus on printmaking because of Graphicstudio," said Miller.

While her early career focused on painting, Frankenthaler would also become known for her collaboration with printmakers. She began this work in 1961, and for the next decade she worked on lithographs, etchings and woodcuts. Images that, while smaller, still capture the same whimsy found in her canvases. Each discipline is represented in the current exhibition.

Exterior of museum
Cathy Carter
USFCAM maintains the university’s art collection, comprised of more than 5,000 art works.

The artist died on December 27, 2011 at the age of at the age of 83, but Miller says Frankenthaler’s work has served as an influence on several generations of artists including Heather Gwen Martin, a Los Angeles based artist who is featured in a companion show at the museum.

“Her paintings are very large and beautiful,” said Miller. “The work is almost as if you’re in the sea, there’s no gravity and it feels like they’re floating and you can float with them. I felt like after this period of Covid, it’s really wonderful to see this young artist with these bright colors and eccentric and fluid forms that seems so innovative.”

The Lyrical Moment: Modern and Contemporary Abstraction by Helen Frankenthaler and Heather Gwen Martin, runs through July 30, 2022 at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.

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