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Artists Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler Photo

Helen Frankenthaler

American Painter

Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Color Field Painting

Born: December 12, 1928 - New York, New York

Died: December 27, 2011 - Darien, Connecticut

Helen Frankenthaler Timeline


"A really good picture looks as if it's happened once. It's an immediate image."
Helen Frankenthaler
"Being the person I was and am, exposed to the things I have been exposed to, I could only make my painting with the methods - and with the wrist - I have."
Helen Frankenthaler
"Sometimes I think the worst thing is the current 'worldliness' of the whole [art] scene. It is the most deceptive, corrupting, transient thing, full of kicks and fun but so little to do with what it's all really about... It has to do with our time, a desperate pact about the power of immediate-in-ness. But I feel less and less concerned with this as an issue. So what? No threat."
Helen Frankenthaler
"There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about."
Helen Frankenthaler
"Whatever the medium, there is the difficult, challenge, fascination and often productive clumsiness of learning a new method: the wonderful puzzles and problems of translating new materials."
Helen Frankenthaler
"Every so often every artist feels, 'I'll never paint again. The muse has gone out the window.' In 1985, I hardly painted at all for three months, and it was agonizing. I looked at reproductions. I stared at Matisse. I stared at the Old Masters. I stared at the Quattrocento. And I thought to myself - Don't push it! If you try too hard to get at something, you almost push it away."
Helen Frankenthaler
"The landscapes were in my arms as I did it."
Helen Frankenthaler

"What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it's pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is - did I make a beautiful picture?"

Helen Frankenthaler Signature


Helen Frankenthaler was among the most influential artists of the mid-20th century. Introduced early in her career to major artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline (and Robert Motherwell, whom she later married), Frankenthaler was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painting practices, but developed her own distinct approach to the style. She invented the "soak-stain" technique, in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint onto canvas, producing luminous color washes that appeared to merge with the canvas and deny any hint of three-dimensional illusionism. Her breakthrough gave rise to the movement promoted by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg as the "next big thing" in American art: Color Field Painting, marked by airy compositions that celebrated the joys of pure color and gave an entirely new look and feel to the surface of the canvas. Later in her career, Frankenthaler turned her attention to other artistic media, most notably woodcuts, in which she achieved the quality of painting, in some cases replicating the effects of her soak-stain process.

Key Ideas

While creating Mountains and Sea (1952), Frankenthaler arrived at her innovative variant of Jackson Pollock's pouring technique, in which she likewise poured paints onto enormous canvases placed on the floor. But while Pollock used enamel paints, which remain on the surface of the canvas when dried, Frankenthaler poured oil paints that she had thinned with turpentine that then soaked into the fabric of the canvas. Frankenthaler's soak-stain process created luminescent, misty compositions dominated by large areas of color that seemed to have emerged onto the canvas naturally and organically.
Frankenthaler's work influenced Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who recognized works like Mountains and Sea as a mode of abstract painting that moved beyond Pollock's textured, psychologically fraught canvases to compositions almost entirely based on color. On the basis of the soak-stain technique and the color wash, Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland went on to develop Color Field Painting. In such works, the entire space of the picture is conceived as a "field" that appears to spread beyond the edges of the canvas; figure and ground became one and the same, and three-dimensional illusionism is completely jettisoned.
In another major departure from first-generation Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler was an abstract artist for whom the natural landscape - rather than the existential confrontation with the canvas or search for the sublime - served as the major focus and inspiration. Her pared-down forms were often informed by her impressions of nature, be they the arid terrain of the American Southwest; a mulberry tree seen in upstate New York; or the Long Island Sound, viewed from the artist's home in Darien, Connecticut.
Frankenthaler applied her breakthrough soak-stain technique to other painterly media, most notably, watered-down acrylic, which she used in place of turpentine-thinned paint starting in the 1960s. Subsequently, she also sought to replicate the method's effects in printmaking, creating woodcuts that not only resembled paintings, but also achieved the misty, watercolor-like quality of her color washes.

Most Important Art

Helen Frankenthaler Famous Art

Mountains and Sea (1952)

This canvas is the artist's landmark piece in which she first pioneered her soak-stain process. Despite its large size (7 x 10 feet), it is a work of quiet intimacy. Painted on the artist's return from Nova Scotia, Mountains and Sea retains the artist's impressions of the Cape Breton environs; as she famously described, the region's landscapes "were in my arms as I did it ... I was trying to get at something - I didn't know what until it was manifest." Here, color takes on a new, primary role, with washes of pink, blue, and green defining the hills, rocks, and water, the forms of which are sketchily outlined in charcoal. Following their encounter with Mountains and Sea and other works by Frankenthaler produced by means of the soak-stain technique, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland promptly embraced the method and, together with Frankenthaler, launched the "next big thing" in American art: Color Field Painting.
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Helen Frankenthaler Artworks in Focus:



Helen Frankenthaler was born and raised in a wealthy Manhattan family with her two older sisters. Her parents recognized and fostered her artistic talent from a young age, sending her to progressive, experimental schools. The family took many trips in the summertime, and it was during these trips that Frankenthaler developed her love of the landscape, sea, and sky. Her father was a judge on the New York State Supreme Court and died of cancer when she was eleven years old. The loss affected her deeply, sending Helen into a four-year period of unhappiness during which time she suffered from intense migraines.

Early Training

Helen Frankenthaler Biography

At fifteen, Frankenthaler was sent to the Dalton School in New York and began to study under the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. By the time she was sixteen, she decided to become an artist, enrolling in Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied under Paul Feeley, who was fundamental in arranging exhibitions of Abstract Expressionists.

Mature Period

In 1948, Frankenthaler moved back to New York. Two years later, she met the prominent art critic Clement Greenberg (19 years her senior) at an exhibition she organized for Bennington alumnae. They began a romantic relationship that would last for several years, during which time Greenberg introduced her to several leading Abstract Expressionists artists, including Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. Greenberg also prompted Frankenthaler to study under Hans Hofmann in 1950. 1952 was the breakthrough year for Frankenthaler; upon returning home from a trip to Nova Scotia, she created Mountains and Sea, a groundbreaking canvas where she pioneered her "soak-stain" technique. Working on a large canvas placed on the floor, Frankenthaler thinned her oil paints with turpentine and used window wipers, sponges, and charcoal outlines to manipulate the resulting pools of pigment.

The following year, Greenberg brought the painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland to Frankenthaler's studio to see Mountains and Sea; their excitement over the work led to their experimentation with Frankenthaler's soak-stain technique and to the development, with Frankenthaler, of Color Field Painting. Louis would later declare that Frankenthaler's work was the "bridge from Pollock to what was possible". The achievement is also noteworthy given that Frankenthaler was just 24 years old at the time, while Pollock and de Kooning were in their 40s and 50s, and struggled many years before achieving recognition.

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Helen Frankenthaler Biography Continues

In the years that followed, Frankenthaler continued using the new method she had developed, drawing on her abiding love of landscape for inspiration. In 1957, she met fellow artist Robert Motherwell, another leading Abstract Expressionist painter, and the following year they began their thirteen-year marriage, marking a period of mutual influence in their artwork. Since Motherwell and Frankenthaler had both come from privilege, the two aroused jealousy among other, cash-poor Abstract Expressionist artists and were famously nicknamed "the golden couple."

Helen Frankenthaler Photo

In the 1960s, Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paint in place of oil. She achieved large washes of bright color in acrylic paintings like Canyon (1965), which reveal the possibilities of this new material. In 1964, her work was included in an exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Identifying this new strain of painting that emerged out of Abstract Expressionism, Greenberg titled the show Post-Painterly Abstraction - his preferred title for the style of painting developed by Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland, which is more generally referred to as Color Field Painting. Frankenthaler also began to show her work internationally, exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 1966 and at the United States Pavilion at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal. She simultaneously began to develop her proficiency in other artistic media; in particular, she embraced printmaking, creating woodcuts, aquatints, and lithographs that rivaled her painting in their inventiveness and beauty.

After her divorce from Motherwell in 1971, Frankenthaler traveled to the American Southwest. Two trips she made in the mid-1970s resulted in Desert Pass (1976) and several other works capturing the colors and tones of the Southwestern landscape.

Late Period

Helen Frankenthaler Portrait

Frankenthaler continued making art during the 1980s and 1990s, up through the last years of her life. In addition to her work in painting and printmaking, she experimented with a variety of other media, including clay and steel sculpture, even designing the sets and costumes for England's Royal Ballet. Several years after being honored at the prominent gallery Knoedler & Company in New York with the exhibition Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades, Frankenthaler died in 2011 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.


Frankenthaler's soak-stain technique gave rise to the Color Field movement, having a decisive impact on the work of the other artists associated with this style, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Jules Olitski. In addition its striking departure from first-generation Abstract Expressionism, Color Field art is often seen as an important precursor of 1960s Minimalism, with its spare, meditative quality.

The canvases of Frankenthaler and her fellow Color Field painters also resonated with the theories of the movement's biggest promoter, Clement Greenberg. Their lack of illusionistic space embodied what Greenberg articulated as modernist painting's logical end result: an increasing embrace of medium's intrinsic quality, which for him was the concept of 'flatness,' or the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Eventually, the movement and Greenberg's ideas lost their popularity and succumbed to the stronger forces of Pop art and Minimalism.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Helen Frankenthaler
Interactive chart with Helen Frankenthaler's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart


Hans HofmannHans Hofmann
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Willem de KooningWillem de Kooning
Rufino TamayoRufino Tamayo

Personal Contacts

Robert MotherwellRobert Motherwell
Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism

Influences on Artist
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
Years Worked: 1952 - Present
Influenced by Artist


Kenneth NolandKenneth Noland
Morris LouisMorris Louis
Jules OlitskiJules Olitski

Personal Contacts

Clement GreenbergClement Greenberg


Abstract ExpressionismAbstract Expressionism
Color Field PaintingColor Field Painting

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Content compiled and written by Jessica Shaffer

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Useful Resources on Helen Frankenthaler







The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Originals: American Women Artists Recomended resource

By Eleanor Munro

Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting Recomended resource

By Alison Rowley


After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959

By Julia Brown, Edited by Susan Cross

Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts

By Judith Goldman

More Interesting Books about Helen Frankenthaler
National Gallery of Australia

Extensive exhibition website dedicated to her woodcuts

Helen Frankenthaler: A Wind That Lashes Everything at Once Recomended resource

By Jerry Saltz
ArtNet Magazine
December 28, 2011

Article: Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
December 27, 2011

Art in Review; Helen Frankenthaler

By Martha Schwendener
The New York Times
December 29, 2006

Frankenthaler's New Way of Making Art

By William C. Agee
The Wall Street Journal
November 8, 2008

More Interesting Articles about Helen Frankenthaler
'Color Field' Artists Found a Different Way Recomended resource

Profile of Helen Frankenthaler
By Susan Stamberg
March 4, 2008

Abstract Artist Helen Frankenthaler Dies at Age 83

By Joel Rose
December 27, 2011

in pop culture

The Art of Influence

One of the fifteen artists focused on in this film, Frankenthaler discusses Jackson Pollock's influence on her work

Painters Painting

This film includes Frankenthaler in a survey of how Abstract Expressionist artists accomplished their work

Who Gets to Call it Art?

Includes a small amount of archival footage of Frankenthaler

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