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  • Helen Frankenthaler's 7-foot by 7-foot acrylic on canvas titled "The Bay," worth $1.5 million, is expected to be fully repaired. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
    Helen Frankenthaler and her paintings
    Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928) is one of the most influential of the second-generation of American abstract expressionist painters (and one of just a handful of women in the group.) She is best known for her lyrical abstractions with undeniable landscape allusions and for originating the technique of so-called stain painting.

    In the early 1950s, Frankenthaler, began pouring paint directly on an unprimed canvas, resulting in overlapping pools of saturated color. When the painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis picked up on Frankenthaler's staining technique, it codified the color-field style that dominated American abstract art in the 1960s.

    Completed in 1963, "The Bay" is a landmark Frankenthaler because it was her first stained picture done with acrylic paint, a new medium at the time. In "The Bay" -- a large picture dominated by sea of blue against horizontal fields of green, gray and cream -- you can feel the artist's growing confidence and control.

    The Detroit Institute of Arts bought the picture in 1965. Becky Hart, assistant curator of contemporary art at the DIA, said that "The Bay" was Frankenthaler's most important painting after "Mountains and Sea," her first stained canvas from 1952. The picture is reproduced in every major Frankenthaler catalog.

    A representative at Knoedler & Company in New York, Frankenthaler's longtime dealer, said that two years ago the National Gallery of Art in Washington bought a major Frankenthaler, "Nature Abhors a Vacuum" (1973), for more than $1.5 million. Given the historical value of "The Bay," it likely would sell for at least as much.

    Boy, 12, gums up pricey DIA artwork
    01.03.2006 DETROIT.
    By Mark STRYKER

    You might think that a museum wouldn't have to tell visitors not to stick chewing gum on the art. But you would be wrong -- as the Detroit Institute of Arts just found out.

    At the DIA on Friday, a mischievous 12-year-old boy visiting the museum with a school group took a piece of barely chewed Wrigley's Extra Polar Ice out of his mouth and stuck it on Helen Frankenthaler's 1963 abstract painting "The Bay," damaging one of the most important modern paintings in the museum's collection and a landmark picture in the artist's output.

    Though the picture, acquired by the DIA in 1965 and worth an estimated $1.5 million, is expected to make a full recovery, the episode reinforces just how vulnerable priceless works of art remain when displayed publicly -- and what can happen when common sense takes a backseat to impulsive delinquency.

    Officials at the DIA and the school in Holly where the scofflaw is a student have not released his name. However, art lovers -- and parents everywhere grateful that it wasn't their son who did the deed -- can rest assured that the perpetrator has been punished. Julie Kildee, director of the Holly Academy, a K-8 charter school, said the boy had been suspended and that his parents also have taken disciplinary action. Kildee declined to reveal the length of the suspension.

    "Even though we give very strict guidelines on proper behavior and we hold students to high standards, he is only 12 and I don't think he understood the ramifications of what he did before it happened, but he certainly understands the severity of it now," said Kildee.

    The incident happened just after 10 a.m. An alert security guard noticed the gum on the painting immediately after the students had exited the gallery. He called a curator and conservator, who came and removed the contraband -- DIA protocol demands that only a museum conservator touch a work of art. Meanwhile, the guard herded the students into the lobby and asked for an explanation. The guilty student confessed almost instantly.

    Luckily, the gum, stuck to the painting's lower left-hand corner (from the viewer's perspective), had not adhered to the fiber of the canvas. But it did leave a chemical residue about the size of a quarter, said Becky Hart, assistant curator of contemporary art. She said the conservation department was researching the exact chemicals in the gum to determine which solvent should be used to clean the painting.

    Once a solvent is chosen, Hart said the picture would be placed on a vacuum table that would pull the solvent through the canvas, removing the stain. She said the museum hoped to have the painting repaired in two weeks. The picture will remain on view in the meantime.

    "Our expectation is that the painting is going to be fine," said Hart.

    Though museum officials were upset, they didn't yell at the student or discipline him. At first, Hart tried to explain to him the museum's role in preserving cultural and visual history. "I knew that probably wouldn't make any sense to him, so I asked him what kind of music he liked," said Hart.

    "He said he liked rap, so I said, 'Well, you know what rock 'n' roll is,' and he did, so I said, 'Can you imagine if somebody had messed up the beat in rock and roll so you didn't have any rhythm in rap.' And he looked at me, and he got it immediately."

    Hart said no more than one or two artworks per year experience minor damage at the museum. She noted that that DIA guards and officials did everything correctly. The picture was hung at a proper height and students were told repeatedly before their visit that food, drink and gum are not allowed in the galleries.

    Of course, sometimes boys will be boys.

    "I'm always thankful that it was not worse," Hart said. "In the scheme of things, this is upsetting, and it will make us review our policies. But we're confident that the painting will be OK."