Anthony Caro Applauds Reactionary Helen Frankenthaler

Caro pays tribute to late Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, who campaigned against controversial artists during the 1980s

Anthony Caro one of the world’s most famous and critically acclaimed living sculptors, has paid tribute to US Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, who died last week. He attributed her to ‘the first of the generation of colour-field painters who took up the baton of New York abstraction from the Abstract Expressionists’, and described how ‘Staining onto raw unprimed canvas her paintings had a grandeur of ambition achieved by a seemingly direct contact between eye and hand’ – the product of ‘supreme confidence and faultless taste’. ‘She was a beacon to young artists especially to women. She had no axe to grind: she took her place naturally among the greats’, Caro added.

He also told of how, ‘On one occasion for about three weeks she made a group of steel sculptures in my London studio. It was a revelation to witness her at work making decisions with certainty in a medium new to her. She knew when to walk away from a piece. She allowed it to breathe.’

‘She was a dear friend to my wife and me for half a century. Her openness both in respect to her work and on a personal level was refreshing. From our earliest days in New York we were recipients of her generosity. She had an inner richness and she knew how to give.’

Helen Frankenthaler died on 27 December, 2011. Although she was relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic, she was a prominent part of the American Abstract Expressionist scene alongside figures  such as Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell and Sam Francis. Six months ago in London she was elected an Honorary Royal Academician by unanimous acclaim.

There has, however, been some controversy surrounding her life (and death), as it seems that, during the 1980s, Frankenthaler singlehandedly tried to stop the support of artists whose work were different from hers, and was one of those responsible for the National Endowment for the Arts dropping individual grants to artists. At the time, she was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA’s chairman. In a 1989 commentary for the New York Times, she wrote that, while ‘censorship and government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process’, she worked against the delivery of grants to controversial artists such as Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe, concerned that the NEA was supporting work ‘of increasingly dubious quality. Is the council, once a helping hand, now beginning to spawn an art monster? Do we lose art … in the guise of endorsing experimentation?’

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