Helen Frankenthaler Life and Art Periods

"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 SYNOPSIS

The painter and printmaker Helen Frankenthaler was among the most influential artists of the mid-twentieth-century. Introduced early in her career to major Abstract Expressionists artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline (and later marrying Robert Motherwell), 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 woodcut, in which she achieved the quality of painting, in some cases replicating the effects of her soak-stain process.

HELEN FRANKENTHALER 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.
For both Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, works like Mountains and Sea represented 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.
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HELEN FRANKENTHALER BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

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.

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Early Training

Helen Frankenthaler Biography

At fifteen, Frankenthaler was sent to the Dalton School 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 at an exhibition she organized for Bennington alumnae. This meeting began a romantic relationship between the two that would last for the next five years, during which time Greenberg introduced her to prominent painters who were among the leading figures of Abstract Expressionism - artists such as Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. Greenberg also prompted Frankenthaler to study under Hans Hofmann in 1950. 1952 was a pivotal 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 development, with Frankenthaler, of Color Field painting. In the years that followed, Frankenthaler continued using the new method she 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. As Motherwell, like Frankenthaler, had come from privilege, the two were famously known as "the golden couple," arousing jealously on the part of the other, cash-poor members of the Abstract Expressionist movement for their luxurious lifestyle.

Helen Frankenthaler Pouring Paint

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 the United States Pavilion at Expo, in Montreal in 1967. 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 its 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 Late 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 has 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 and Company with the exhibition Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades, Frankenthaler died in 2011 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.

HELEN FRANKENTHALER LEGACY

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 is also often seen as an important precursor of 1960s Minimalism, with its spare, meditative quality.

The soak-stained 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 any hint of three-dimensional volume or illusionistic space seemed to embody what Greenberg articulated as the end result of modernist painting: its increasing move to embrace the intrinsic quality of its medium, which for him was the concept of "flatness," or the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.

Original content written by Jessica Shaffer
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HELEN FRANKENTHALER QUOTES

"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?"

"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."

"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

Helen Frankenthaler Influences

Interactive chart with Helen Frankenthaler's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s, he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Hans Hofmann
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Rufino Tamayo
Rufino Tamayo
Rufino Tamayo was a twentieth-century Zapotecan Indian painter from Mexico. Tamayo was known as an artistic rebel in his day. While his contemporaries, such as Diego Rivera, painted large murals charged with leftist politics and revolutionary zeal, Tamayo painted in a more avant-garde style, inspired by Cubism, Fauvism and Post-Impressionism.

Modern Art Information Rufino Tamayo
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell
Robert Motherwell was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist whose paintings use hulking shapes, large-scale strokes and calligraphy, and wide expanses of muted color. Eloquent and well-educated, he wrote extensively on theories of art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Robert Motherwell
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Kenneth Noland
Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, Frankenthaler and others, Louis pioneered the color-field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Morris Louis
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Franz Kline
Franz Kline
Franz Kline was an American abstract painter and one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism. His signature black-and-white abstractions were inspired by Japanese calligraphy, and inspired a later generation of artists who created Minimalism.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Franz Kline
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner was an American abstract painter and a prominent first-generation Abstract Expressionist. A student of Hans Hofmann's, and a pioneer in the all-over technique of painting that later influenced color-field artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and her husband, Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Lee Krasner
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Post-Painterly Abstraction
Jules Olitski
Jules Olitski
Jules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter and key figure in the mid-century movements of color-field painting and Post-painterly abstraction. Olitski is most famous for his innovation of painting using multiple spray guns, applied to unprimed and unstretched canvases.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jules Olitski
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Mountains and Sea
Mountains and Sea

Title: Mountains and Sea (1952)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Mountains and Sea - whose quiet intimacy suggests a humble watercolor as opposed to a 7 x 10' canvas - is the artist's landmark piece in which she first pioneered her soak-stain process. 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.


Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Canyon
Canyon

Title: Canyon (1965)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The topographical features of the landscape often served as inspiration for Frankenthaler's abstract imagery, although the leaf-like shape of the present work suggests another natural source. With its brilliant red wash filling most of the canvas, Canyon reflects the change in Frankenthaler's artistic practice introduced several years earlier, when she began replacing turpentine-thinned oil with watered-down acrylic poured in larger stains and blots. The painting's gentle luminosity evokes the art critic Nigel Gosling's 1964 description of Frankenthaler's work, written in connection with the artist's London gallery exhibition of that year: "If any artist can give us aid and comfort, Helen Frankenthaler can with her great splashes of soft colour on huge square canvases. They are big but not bold, abstract but not empty or clinical, free but orderly, lively but intensely relaxed and peaceful."


Acrylic on canvas - The Phillips Collection

East and Beyond
East and Beyond

Title: East and Beyond (1973)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Depicting an open space above a mountain-like divide, East and Beyond was Frankenthaler's first foray into the medium of woodcut. Her concern in this work with achieving the vibrant color and amorphous forms of her painting resulted in a major technical innovation for this art form. The artist cut a thin sheet of plywood into separately inked shapes and then, in collaboration with ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions), the Long Island studio that printed the work, devised a special method for eliminating the white lines between them when printing. The newly designed technique - hailed by one writer as "a departure so profound that virtually all subsequent woodcuts incorporated the thinking it embodied" - had a major impact on subsequent printmaking. Indeed, East and Beyond is far removed from the graphic appearance of the traditional woodblock print, giving the appearance of painted, rather than carved, wood.


Woodcut

Desert Pass
Desert Pass

Title: Desert Pass (1976)

Artwork Description & Analysis: With its minimally defined forms and earthy palette, Desert Pass is an excellent example of the ways Frankenthaler responded to the natural landscape. Inspired by a trip to the American Southwest, the painting captures not only the colors and forms, but also the climate of the region. Among them: yellow-gold, evoking sand as well as the desert's aridity and intense light and greenish-blue, suggesting the form and color of cacti.


Acrylic on canvas - Smithsonian American Art Museum

Essence mulberry
Essence mulberry

Title: Essence mulberry (1977)

Artwork Description & Analysis: An eight-color woodcut, Essence mulberry consists of a large bluish gray area containing orange markings, framed by two broad stripes of rich red. The print's palette had sources in both art history - the faded colors of fifteenth-century prints Frankenthaler encountered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - and nature: a mulberry tree located outside Kenneth Tyler's printmaking studio in New Bedford, New York. Using mulberry juice to capture the tree's rich red, the artist achieved the quality of painting - defying the graphic nature and helping expand the possibilities of the medium. Printed by Tyler Graphics, Essence mulberry was the first of Frankenthaler's many collaborations with the master printer occurring over a roughly twenty-five year period.


Woodcut composition - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Madame Butterfly
Madame Butterfly

Title: Madame Butterfly (2000)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Although the central white shape suggests a butterfly, this print captures rather than depicts its subject, evoking the sense of delicacy central to the experiences of the Japanese woman at the heart of the Puccini opera. Frankenthaler's final collaboration with Tyler Graphics, Madame Butterfly is an incredibly complex work, involving 106 colors, 46 woodblocks, and measuring 6' in length. Both its subject and the manner in which the print was created, using traditional Japanese ukiyo-e carving techniques, reflect the artist's sustained engagement with Asian art and culture. With its color washes, floating forms, and watercolor-like effect, Madame Butterfly is reminiscent of works like Mountains and Sea - a seeming realization of the soak-stain technique in the medium of woodcut.


Woodcut

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