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Heather Gwen Martin | USF Contemporary Art Museum

Photography by Will Lytch / Courtesy of USF Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa


June 17 – July 30, 2022
USF Contemporary Art Museum

Taking as a starting point a substantial award by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, the USF Contemporary Art Museum has organized an exhibition that features elegant, hand-processed prints by pioneering artist Helen Frankenthaler and digitally-informed, pop-inflected canvases and gouaches by Los Angeles painter Heather Gwen Martin. Born of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s substantial gift of prints as part of their Frankenthaler Prints Initiative for university-affiliated museums, the exhibition brings together outstanding works on paper by a modern master with lyrical paintings by an accomplished contemporary artist whose colorful efforts invoke computational algorithms and twenty-first century screen culture. 

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), whose career spanned six decades, has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. She was eminent among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and is widely credited for playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. Through her invention of the soak-stain technique, she expanded the possibilities of abstract painting, while at times referencing figuration and landscape in unique ways. She produced a body of work whose impact on contemporary art has been profound and continues to grow. 

Frankenthaler experimented tirelessly throughout her long career. In addition to producing unique paintings on canvas and paper, she worked in a wide range of media, including ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and especially printmaking. Hers was a significant voice in the mid-century “print renaissance” among American abstract painters. She continued to work and exhibit through the opening years of this century. 

For more than a decade, L.A.-based artist Heather Gwen Martin (1977) has been creating paintings that walk a tightrope between improvisation and deliberation, dissolution and structure. While a full-time student at the University of California San Diego—where she studied with Pattern and Decoration pioneer Kim McConnell—Martin worked as a colorist for DC comics, adding color onto scenes and characters using computer technology. The experience had an unintended but profound effect on her painting. 

Today, Martin’s canvases resemble splash pages for certain copyrighted film or screen-based entertainments. Nonetheless her vividly colored abstractions remain one hundred percent handmade, containing no high-tech aides or digital fillers. Denuded of figures, captions and word balloons, her sprightly landscapes distill reflection and sensation into loops of sinuous line and flat areas of color. While some canvases superficially resemble the livelier aspects of swipe-and-like looking—rounded emoji-like shapes and abrupt transitions between bright areas of color—they impress sensorially, like the taste of underripe fruit or a sharp intake of cold breath. 

The Lyrical Moment: Modern and Contemporary Abstraction by Helen Frankenthaler and Heather Gwen Martin is curated by Christian Viveros-Fauné, CAM Curator-at-Large; organized by the USF Contemporary Art Museum. The exhibition is sponsored in part by the Gobioff Foundation; the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; and made possible by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s generous gift to the USF Art Collection.

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