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Evident in this work is Frankenthaler’s signature technique of thinning her paint so that it elegantly stains the surface, allowing the viewer to glimpse the woven texture of the canvas. To achieve this soak-stain effect, Frankenthaler would mix house paint, enamel, tube oil paints, and either turpentine or kerosene. While Frankenthaler was not the first artist to water-down her paint—indeed, such predecessors as Wasily Kandinsky, Joan Mirò, and Arshile Gorky all implemented this technique to achieve an open and airy quality—Frankenthaler adapted the staining technique from those who preceded her and it is she who should be credited with fully exploring the capabilities and boundaries that the process allowed.
It was in the early 1950s that Frankenthaler established a reputation as one of the most promising artists of her generation with her first solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. She was the youngest artist included in the famed Ninth Street Exhibition, and along with Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, Frankenthaler was accepted as a highly regarded member of the ‘Second Generation’ of Abstract Expressionists. While it was around this time that Frankenthaler’s canvases began to achieve a lightness—a kind of openness that allowed the composition to breathe—it was in the 1970s that the artist had moved away from the literal and figurative landscapes seen in her early work, such as the celebrated Mountains and Sea from 1952, and towards a more emotional and expressive representation of Color Field paintings where she developed a new sumptuousness and sensuality characterized in the present work.
These emotional and expressive representations were evident in Frankenthaler’s early 1970s paintings more than ever. Having closed her 83rd Street studio in 1970 after a decade, divorced from Robert Motherwell in 1971, and experienced the first full scale book of her art published in 1972, Spanning was painted in the height of what was a deeply important and transitional stage in the artist’s life. The reappearance of line drawing in the artist’s oeuvre became truly fundamental to this period, integrating into the organic and earthy color palette, as seen within the present work, and achieving a delicate quality within the soft, bleeding shapes. Beautifully articulated in Spanning, the artist paints her remembrance of a place and time – not seeking to capture an actual likeliness, but allowing her memory to be released through the act of painting. The stunning mélange of acrylic in a range of prismatic hues offers such visual opulence that marks this cosmic canvas as among the artist’s finest paintings of the 1970s.
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