Helen Frankenthaler

The American painter Helen Frankenthaler (born 1928) was a central figure in the development of color-field abstraction during the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Helen Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928, in New York City. As a painter her earliest training was with the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo at the Dalton School in New York. She studied with Paul Feeley at Bennington College, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in 1948. She then lived in New York City, although she traveled extensively throughout Europe. She was married to the painter Robert Motherwell.

In the early 1950s Frankenthaler participated in several important group shows and had her first solo exhibition in 1951. She exhibited regularly during this decade and by 1960 had begun to receive national and international recognition. Large exhibitions of her work were held at the Jewish Museum in New York City in 1960 and at Bennington College in 1962. In 1969 she enjoyed a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Frankenthaler's style developed in ways counter to the better-known trends of abstract painting during the 1950s. Inspired by Jackson Pollock's black-and-white paintings of 1951, she began to stain thinned pigment into unprimed canvas. The paintings which resulted possessed a delicate, liquid appearance, and their surfaces were devoid of any hint of physical pigment. By contrast, most abstract painting of this time took inspiration from Willem de Kooning's work and emphasized dense surface face textures and aggressive brushwork. But Frankenthaler's direction gradually became influential. In 1953 she introduced the stain technique to Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, both of whom adopted and developed it within the personal structures of their own painting. Along with Frankenthaler, these two painters profoundly influenced the direction of nonpainterly color abstraction in the 1960s.

The painting which Frankenthaler showed to Louis and Noland is called Mountains and Sea (1952). It clearly reveals the advantages of the staining technique, particularly in the flowing spontaneity of the color areas. Because the thinned pigment soaks naturally into the canvas ground, passages from one color to the next are experienced within a continuous optical field rather than as abrupt jumps from one discrete plane to another. In other words, the space is generated within the acknowledged limits of the two-dimensional canvas surface.

As its title suggests, Mountains and Sea bears a lingering resemblance to a natural landscape. In 1989 the editor-in-chief of American Artist referred to Mountains and Sea as one of the four "landmark paintings in the history of contemporary art." In her work after the early 1950s, Frankenthaler became more abstract in her imagery and devoted increasing attention to the development of her lyrical color sensibility.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Frankenthaler continued to develop her own style, one which emphasizes the notion of beauty. She explored the use of acrylic paints, and her work during this era tended to be larger, simpler, and more geometric than previous pieces. Still, her goal was to capture emotion through the use of color without using scenes or subjects. In the late 1970s she explored cubist ideas of space that she had learned in art school.

During the late 1980s critics began to realize more fully how significantly Frankenthaler's work had contributed to the art world. They credit her with many technical achievements and approaches to the use of color during her four decades of creativity. Retrospective exhibitions of her work began to tour museums, even as she continued to create. In late 1996 Eric Gibson noted in ARTnews that her latest round of prints, Spring Run Monotypes, "convey a wide array of sentiments that were barely noticeable in her earlier works."

Critics consider Frankenthaler one of the most highly regarded painters of the 20th century. Though she has experimented with a variety of techniques, her style has remained truly individual. She told Newsweek in 1989, "I continue to do the work I do." This beautiful and poetic work has assured her a place among the masters of contempory art.


Further Reading on Helen Frankenthaler

For Helen Frankenthaler's position in relation to postwar American painting see Barbara Rose, American Art since 1900: A Critical History (1967). Two excellent retrospectives of her work are John Elderfield, Frankenthaler, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997; and Ruth E. Fine, Helen Frankenthaler: Prints, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993. Interviews with Frankenthaler are featured in Bradley W. Bloch, "Pigments of the Imagination," New Leader, September 4, 1989; and Carter Ratcliff, "Living Color," Vogue, June 1989.