Helen Frankenthaler

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Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler-1956.jpg
Frankenthaler in 1956
Born (1928-12-12)December 12, 1928
Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Darien, Connecticut, United States
Nationality American
Education Dalton School
Bennington College
Known for Abstract painting
Notable work Mountains and Sea
Movement Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction

Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928 – December 27, 2011) was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Having exhibited her work for over six decades (early 1950s until 2011), she spanned several generations of abstract painters while continuing to produce vital and ever-changing new work.[1] Frankenthaler began exhibiting her large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in contemporary museums and galleries in the early 1950s. She was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg that introduced a newer generation of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field. Born in Manhattan, she was influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings and by Clement Greenberg. Her work has been the subject of several retrospective exhibitions, including a 1989 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and been exhibited worldwide since the 1950s. In 2001, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Frankenthaler had a home and studio in Darien, Connecticut.[2]

Early life and education

Helen Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928 in New York City.[3] Her father was Alfred Frankenthaler, a respected New York State Supreme Court judge.[3] Her mother, Martha (Lowenstein), had emigrated with her family from Germany to the United States shortly after she was born.[4] Her two sisters, Marjorie and Gloria, were six and five years older, respectively. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Frankenthaler absorbed the privileged background of a cultured and progressive Jewish intellectual family that encouraged all three daughters to prepare themselves for professional careers. Her nephew is the artist/photographer Clifford Ross.[5]

Frankenthaler studied at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo and also at Bennington College in Vermont.[3] While at Bennington College, Frankenthaler studied under the direction of Paul Feeley, who is credited with helping her understand pictorial composition, as well as influencing her early cubist-derived style.[6] Upon her graduation in 1949, she studied privately with Australian-born painter Wallace Harrison,[7] and with Hans Hofmann in 1950.[8][9] She met Clement Greenberg in 1950 and had a five-year relationship with him.[4] She was later married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), from 1958 until they divorced in 1971.[10] Both born of wealthy parents, the pair was known as "the golden couple" and noted for their lavish entertaining.[4] She gained from him two stepdaughters, Jeannie Motherwell and Lise Motherwell.[4] She married Stephen M. DuBrul, Jr., an investment banker who served the Ford administration, in 1994.[4]

Frankenthaler had been on the faculty of Hunter College.

Style and technique

Mountains and Sea, 1952, 86 5/8 x 117 1/4 inches, (220 x 297.8 cm., oil and charcoal on canvas, on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

As a whole, Frankenthaler’s style is almost impossible to broadly characterize. As an active painter for nearly six decades, she went through a variety of phases and stylistic shifts.[11] Initially associated with abstract expressionism[12] because of her focus on forms latent in nature, Frankenthaler is identified with the use of fluid shapes, abstract masses, and lyrical gestures.[8][13] She made use of large formats on which she painted, generally, simplified abstract compositions.[14] Her style is notable in its emphasis on spontaneity, as Frankenthaler herself stated, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.” [6]

Frankenthaler's official artistic career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition of Mountains and Sea.[15] Throughout the 1950s, her works tended to be centered compositions, meaning the majority of the pictorial incident took place in the middle of the canvas itself, while the edges were of little consequence to the compositional whole.[11] In 1957, Frankenthaler began to experiment with linear shapes and more organic, sun-like, rounded forms in her works.[8] In the 1960s, her style shifted towards the exploration of symmetrical paintings, as she began to place strips of colors near the edges of her paintings, thus involving the edges as a part of the compositional whole. With this shift in composition came a general simplification of Frankenthaler’s style.[11] She began to make use of single stains and blots of solid color against white backgrounds, often in the form of geometric shapes.[8] Beginning in 1963, Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paints rather than oil paints because they allowed for both opacity and sharpness when put on the canvas.[9] By the 1970s, she had done away with the soak stain technique entirely, preferring thicker paint that allowed her to employ bright colors almost reminiscent of Fauvism. Throughout the 1970s, Frankenthaler explored the joining of areas of the canvas through the use of modulated hues, and experimented with large, abstract forms.[11] Her work in the 1980s was characterized as much calmer, with its use of muted colors and relaxed brushwork.[8]

Color Field painting

In 1960 the term Color Field painting was used to describe the work of Frankenthaler.[16] In general, this term refers to the application of large areas, or fields, of a single color to the canvas. This style was characterized by the use of hues that were similar in tone or intensity, as well as large formats and simplified compositions, all of which are qualities descriptive of Frankenthaler’s work from the 1960s onward.[14] The Color Field artists set themselves apart from the Abstract Expressionists because they eliminated the emotional, mythic or the religious content and the highly personal and gestural and painterly application.[17]


Frankenthaler often painted onto unprimed canvas with oil paints that she heavily diluted with turpentine, a technique that she named "soak stain." This allowed for the colors to soak directly into the canvas, creating a liquefied, translucent effect that strongly resembled watercolor. Soak stain was also said to be the ultimate fusing of image and canvas, drawing attention to the flatness of the painting itself.[6] The major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.[18][19] The technique was adopted by other artists, notably Morris Louis (1912–1962), and Kenneth Noland (1924–2010), and launched the second generation of the Color Field school of painting.[20] Frankenthaler often worked by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.[6]

Frankenthaler preferred to paint in privacy. If assistants were present she preferred them to be inconspicuous when not needed.[21]


One of her most important influences was Clement Greenberg (1909–1994), an influential art and literary critic with whom she had a personal friendship and who included her in the Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition that he curated in 1964.[10][22] Through Greenberg she was introduced to the New York art scene. Under his guidance she spent the summer of 1950 studying with Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), catalyst of the Abstract Expressionist movement.

The first Jackson Pollock show Frankenthaler saw was at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. She had this to say about seeing Pollock's paintings Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 (1950), Number One,1950 (Lavender Mist) (1950):

"It was all there. I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language."

Some of her thoughts on painting:

"A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it—well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that—there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute." In Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1975, p. 85)

Major works


Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler’s first professionally exhibited work, is generally identified as her most well-known painting because of its use of soak stain. The work itself was painted after a trip to Nova Scotia, calling into question just how abstract the painting is. While Mountains and Sea is not a direct depiction of a Nova Scotia coastline, there are elements of it that suggest a kind of seascape or landscape, like the strokes of blue that join with areas of green. Much like Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler’s Basque Landscape (1958) seems to refer to a very specific, external environment, though the work itself is abstract.[11] The same can be said for Lorelei (1956), a work based on a boat ride Frankenthaler took down the Rhine.[23]

In Swan Lake #2 (1961), Frankenthaler begins to explore a more illustrative handling of paint. The work depicts a large area of blue paint on the canvas, with breaks in the color that are left white. These negative spaces resemble birds, perhaps swans, sitting on a body of water. There is a very rectilinear brown square that encompasses the blue, balancing both the cool tones of the blue with the warmth of the brown, and the gestural handling of the paint with the strong linearity of the square.[11]

Eden, from 1956, is an interior landscape, meaning it depicts the images of the artist’s imagination. Eden tells the story of an abstract, interior world, idealized in ways that a landscape never could be. The work is almost entirely gestural, save for the incorporation of the number “100” two times in the center of the image. When asked about the process of creating this work, Frankenthaler stated that she began by painting the numbers, and that a sort of symbolic, idealized garden grew out of that.[23]

Prints and woodcuts

Frankenthaler recognized that, as an artist, she needed to continually challenge herself in order to grow. For this reason, in 1961, she began to experiment with printmaking at the Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), a lithographic workshop in West Islip, Long Island. Frankenthaler collaborated with Tatyana Grosman in 1961 to create her first prints.[6]

In 1976, Frankenthaler began to work within the medium of woodcuts. She collaborated with Kenneth E. Tyler. The first piece they created together was Essence of Mulberry (1977), a woodcut that used eight different colors. Essence of Mulberry was inspired by two sources: the first was an exhibition of fifteenth century woodcuts that Frankenthaler saw on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the second being a mulberry tree that grew outside of Tyler’s studio. In 1995, the pair collaborated again, creating The Tales of Genji, a series of six woodcut prints. In order to create woodcuts with a resonance similar to Frankenthaler’s painterly style, she painted her plans onto to wood itself, making maquettes. The Tales of Genji took nearly three years to complete. Frankenthaler then went on to create Madame Butterfly, a print that employed one hundred and two different colors and forty-six woodblocks. Madame Butterfly is seen as the ultimate translation of Frankenthaler’s style into the medium of woodcuts, as it embodies her idea of creating an image that looks as if it happened all at once.[6]

Awards and legacy

Frankenthaler received the National Medal of Arts in 2001.[24] She served on the National Council on the Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1985 to 1992.[25] Her other awards include First Prize for Painting at the first Paris Biennial (1959); Temple Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia (1968); New York City Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture (1986); and Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association (1994).[26] In 1990 she was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and became a full Academician in 1994.

Frankenthaler did not consider herself a feminist: she said "For me, being a 'lady painter' was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint."[27] "Art was an extremely macho business," Anne Temkin, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art, told NPR. "For me, there's a great deal of admiration just in the courage and the vision that she brought to what she did."[28]

In 1953, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis saw her Mountains and Sea which, Louis said later, was a "bridge between Pollock and what was possible."[29] On the other hand, some critics called her work "merely beautiful."[28] Grace Glueck's obituary in The New York Times summed up Frankenthaler's career:

Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."[4]

Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

The New York-based Helen Frankenthaler Foundation administers various aspects of Frankenthaler’s estate and promotes her legacy.[30]


Frankenthaler's first solo exhibition took place at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, in the fall of 1951. Her first major museum show, a retrospective of her 1950s work with a catalog by the critic and poet Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was at the Jewish Museum in 1960. Subsequent solo exhibitions include “Helen Frankenthaler,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1969; traveled to Whitechapel Gallery, London; Orangerie Herrenhausen, Hanover; and Kongresshalle, Berlin), and “Helen Frankenthaler: a Painting Retrospective,” The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1989–90; traveled to the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Detroit Institute of Arts).[31]


Frankenthaler's work is represented in institutional collections worldwide, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.[31]Walker Art Center

National Endowment for the Arts

According to the Los Angeles Times, "Frankenthaler did take a highly public stance during the late 1980s "culture wars" that eventually led to deep budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and a ban on grants to individual artists that still persists. At the time, she was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA's chairman. In a 1989 commentary for the New York Times, she wrote that, while "censorship and government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process," controversial grants to Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and others reflected a trend in which the NEA was supporting work "of increasingly dubious quality. Is the council, once a helping hand, now beginning to spawn an art monster? Do we lose art ... in the guise of endorsing experimentation?"[32][33]

See also


  1. National Gallery of Art Retrieved August 17, 2010
  2. Web page titled "Helen Frankenthaler", at the "Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame" website, retrieved January 30, 2010
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Helen Frankenthaler", Britannica, Retrieved 24 December 2014.
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  5. Grace Glueck, NY Times, 1998 Retrieved August 17, 2010
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  12. Tate bio Retrieved August 17, 2010
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  15. Britannica RetrievedAugust 17, 2010
  16. 'Color Field' Artists Found a Different Way Retrieved 3 August 2010
  17. "Colour Field Painting". Tate. Retrieved August 17, 2010
  18. Carmean, E.A. Helen Frankenthaler A Paintings Retrospective, Exhibition Catalog, p.12, Harry N. Abrams in conjunction with The Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, ISBN 0-8109-1179-5
  19. John Elderfield, After a Breakthrough on the 1950s paintings of Helen Frankenthaler Retrieved August 17, 2010
  20. Fenton, Terry. "Morris Louis". sharecom.ca. Retrieved December 8, 2008
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  22. list of artists in the exhibition Retrieved August 17, 2010
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  26. Helen Frankenthaler Guggenheim Museum Collection Online, New York.
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  30. Elizabeth A. T. Smith Named Director of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation New York Observer.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959, March 8 - April 13, 2013 Gagosian Gallery, New York.
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Additional reading


  • Alison Rowley, Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing painting. I.B.Tauris Publishers, 2007.
  • Helen Frankenthaler in Interview with Henry Geldzahler, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Kristine Stiles and peter Selz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, pp. 28–30. ISBN 0-520-20253-8
  • Malvarez, Javier, UNED, Madrid, Spain (In Spanish) "Helen Frankenthaler:Explorando la Fluidez", Master Thesis, 2011,

External links