Helen Frankenthaler

1928-2011

Helen Frankenthaler was an Abstract-Expressionist painter active in New York City, who pioneered the pure abstraction technique of Color Field painting, which was adopted by Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons, Sam Gilliam, and the early Frank Stella.

In 1950, Frankenthaler met the influential art and literary critic Clement Greenberg, with whom she had a five year relationship. Greenberg guided her to study with Hans Hofmann, the master of Abstract Expressionism.  In the 1950s, Frankenthaler was a member of the New York School, which included young artists and poets.  The other female artists in this group were Grace Hartigan, Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson, Joan Snyder, and Nell Blaine. She was married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell from 1958 to 1971.

In 1952, Frankenthaler established herself as an innovator with her “Mountains and Sea.”  The massive color-saturated painting was made with her unique “soak stain” technique.  Diluting oil paint, house paint, and enamel with turpentine and kerosene, she poured the mixture on the unprimed canvass laid flat on the floor. Her technique resulted in large fields of beautiful translucent color, which influenced the artists who became known as ‘Color Field’ painters.

Later on Franenthaler would use enormous, waist-high tabletops to lay the canvasses on.  While this process took time, the effect was one of spontaneity.  Frankenthaler felt that, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.”

During the 1960s she adapted her soak stain technique by using acrylic paint, which was newly developed at that time.  She would apply multiple layers of acrylic paint on paper and canvas, creating art that blended forms in a way similar to that of watercolors. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Frankenthaler became known for her gorgeous sweeps of inflected color, and she based some of her paintings on the Old Masters. Her style was lyrical, even feminine, in a decade that was dominated by a macho aesthetic.  Some of her very large abstract paintings are suggestive of landscapes.

Frankenthaler apprenticed with a master woodblock maker in Japan and was recognized for her woodcuts and inventive printmaking.  In her lithographs, etchings, and screen prints, she assimilated much from Japanese  and Chinese art.

Frankenthaler frequently taught as a visiting professor at colleges and universities throughout the country.  She received 26 honorary doctorates and had several major retrospectives at the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art with her artwork shown and held in major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art  .

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