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Sir Anthony Caro pays tribute to Helen Frankenthaler

Posted by Sebastian Smee  January 3, 2012 02:43 PM

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Helen Frankenthaler, who died last week, was a close friend to both Sir Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling.

ROOF09952.jpgWhen I was writing up Frankenthaler's obituary for last Tuesday's Globe, I tried to get in touch with Caro, whom I had interviewed for The Art Newspaper a decade ago in London. That interview was at once one of the most humiliating experiences of my professional life and one of the most gratifying.

On the appointed day, we had a long and freewheeling conversation at Caro's studio in London. But when I got home, I discovered (classic journalist's nightmare!) that my dictaphone had been on a setting (VAS) that rendered the entire interview incomprehensible gobbledegook, like the climactic moments of a seance played backwards.

My skin went all prickly. My stomach dipped, and kept on dipping. I was crushed.

What could I do? A whole page was going to be empty if I didn't produce the goods. I called Caro's studio. I told him the truth. I was profusely apologetic.

He didn't hesitate. "Come back, come back tomorrow!" he said.

When I did, Caro, the world's most famous and critically acclaimed living sculptor, didn't just go through the motions: he gave me more time on the second run than I'd had on the first - about two hours, and a tour of his studio and latest work to boot.

An incredible experience. I'll never forget it.

Caro was unavailable when I called last Monday to speak about Frankenthaler. But today I received an email which strikes me as incredibly touching. It didn't make it in to the obituary, so I copy it in here in full:

12282011_28frankenthaler_photo3.jpg"Helen Frankenthaler who died over Christmas was the first of the generation of colour-field painters who took up the baton of New York abstraction from the Abstract Expressionists. Staining onto raw unprimed canvas her paintings had a grandeur of ambition achieved by a seemingly direct contact between eye and hand. She used to say "it's all in the wrist" but this was informed by supreme confidence and faultless taste.

"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.

"She was a beacon to young artists especially to women. She had no axe to grind: she took her place naturally among the greats. Six months ago in London she was elected an Honorary Royal Academician by unanimous acclaim. It was a measure of the high esteem in which she is held internationally. Her work continues to delight and inspire those who love art.

Anthony Caro, 28 December 2011"

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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