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Painting Within Tradition: The Career of Helen Frankenthaler

THERE ARE FEW INSTANCES IN WHICH the critic has to evaluate work that has had some special personal significance for him; but those instances are often the most challenging. When I abandoned the provinces, I came to New York to study the Old Masters. But Morningside Heights soon proved less compelling than 57th Street. This was something I couldn’t justify for a long time. One day, however, I saw abstract paintings that succeeded in preserving many of the qualities I admired in the Old Masters—especially the lightness and airiness of the great “painterly” painters like the Venetians—without turning back to their techniques or images. Although I did not drop the Old Masters on the spot, I realized I was more drawn to these contemporary paintings than to past art because they recreated a long tradition of painting within the terms of my own experience.

Now I have had the opportunity to look

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