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helen frankenthaler
Archives of American Art

Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Expressionist Painter

January 26, 2010
by James Sullivan
Helen Frankenthaler was an American painter, sculptor and printmaker associated with the second-generation abstract expressionists, and a pioneer of the color field movement. She is renowned for using an innovative “soak stain” technique to create her landscape-inspired abstract works.

Frankenthaler’s Early Days

Frankenthaler was born on Dec. 12, 1928, in New York City. Her father was a New York State Supreme Court justice.

She attended the Dalton School, where she studied under Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, and went on to earn a B.A. from Bennington College in Vermont, studying under Paul Feeley. After college she returned to New York. She was introduced to important figures in the avant-garde art scene by Clement Greenberg, a prominent art critic whom she met in 1950. Greenberg also prompted her to study under Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann.

Inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, Frankenthaler developed a unique style of “stain painting.” By lying unprimed, unstretched canvases on the floor and treating them with diluted oil-based paints that she manipulated using “window wipers, sponges and charcoal outlines,” she created abstract works that resembled landscapes. Her pioneering piece in this style was “Mountains and Sea,” created after a trip to Nova Scotia.

Frankenthaler’s Notable Accomplishments

Frankenthaler’s first gallery exhibition was in 1951, and her first solo museum exhibition was held in 1960 at The Jewish Museum in New York.

Her 1952 piece “Mountains and Sea” proved to be her “breakthrough painting,” and had considerable influence on the color field movement, and painters like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. In the years that followed she continued to work in her soak-stain style, drawing primarily on landscapes for inspiration.

She met artist Robert Motherwell in 1957, and a year later they married. During the 1960s Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paint instead of oil. “Frankenthaler also began to show internationally, exhibiting at the International Biennial of Art in Venice in 1966 and in the United States Pavilion at Expo in Montreal in 1967.” She spent summers working in Provincetown, Mass., and bought a second home and studio in Connecticut during the '70s.

She and Motherwell divorced in 1971. Her work in the period drew on landscapes of the American West, where she was a frequent traveler. She also expanded her artistic vocabulary through printmaking, creating woodcuts, lithographs and aquatints.

Frankenthaler’s work has been exhibited in many one-woman shows, including “important retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969 and New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1989.”

The Rest of the Story

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Helen Frankenthaler is considered by many to be “the country’s most prominent living female artist.”

She has continued producing art into her 80s. During her late period she experimented with working in different media, including clay and steel sculpture. In 1985 she created costumes and sets for a production by England’s Royal Ballet.

In late 2008, the Knoedler and Company gallery honored Frankenthaler with the exhibition, “Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades.” Over the course of her career Frankenthaler has received numerous awards and honorary degrees. She has taught at schools including Harvard, Princeton and New York University.

The Purchase College School of the Arts commissioned a video portrait of Frankenthaler for the 2008 Nelson A. Rockefeller Awards. You can watch the film, which features clips of interviews and images of her work, at YouTube.

Find the latest news on Helen Frankenthaler at The New York Times.

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