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.
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.
Helen Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928 in New York City. Her father was Alfred Frankenthaler, a respected New York State Supreme Court judge. Her mother, Martha (Lowenstein), had emigrated with her family from Germany to the United States shortly after she was born.
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.
Frankenthaler studied at the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo and also at Bennington College in Vermont. 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.
Upon her graduation in 1949, she studied privately with Australian-born painter Wallace Harrison, and with Hans Hofmann in 1950. She met Clement Greenberg in 1950 and had a five-year relationship with him.
She was later married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), from 1958 until they divorced in 1971. Both born of wealthy parents, the pair was known as “the golden couple” and noted for their lavish entertaining. She gained from him two stepdaughters, Jeannie Motherwell and Lise Motherwell. She married Stephen M. DuBrul, Jr., an investment banker who served the Ford administration, in 1994.
Frankenthaler had been on the faculty of Hunter College.
In 1960 the term Color Field painting was used to describe the work of Frankenthaler. 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.
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.
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. The major disadvantage of this method, however, is that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.
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. Frankenthaler often worked by laying her canvas out on the floor, a technique inspired by Jackson Pollock.
Frankenthaler preferred to paint in privacy. If assistants were present she preferred them to be inconspicuous when not needed.
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. The same can be said for Lorelei (1956), a work based on a boat ride Frankenthaler took down the Rhine.
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.
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.
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?”