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Women of Abstraction (P.4): Helen Frankenthaler

Women of Abstraction (P.4): Helen Frankenthaler


Helen Frankenthaler, whose career spanned six decades, was eminent among the second generation of American abstract painters in New York. Through her invention of the “soak-stain” technique, she is credited with playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to what would be called Color Field painting, or Post-Painterly Abstraction. Throughout her long career, Frankenthaler continuously experimented - not only painting, but working in ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and printmaking, and is said to have revolutionized the art of woodcut printing. 

Helen was born in New York City in 1928, to a wealthy and influential family.  She was the third of three girls, and her father was New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler. In 1940, she attended the progressive Dalton school, which inspired her to become an artist and gave her the support she needed after the death of her father in 1940. At age fifteen, she regularly snuck off to the Village to listen to poets, and recognized that the artist’s life “was very much more my thing. Bohemia was where I lived and had fun and the rest was where I belonged with my family.” In 1945, she graduated from Dalton, continuing her studies at Bennington College from 1946-1949, and taking courses at the Graduate School of Fine Arts at Columbia University in 1950. During those years she rented a studio on Twenty First Street, and in 1950 met art critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced her into the avant-garde art scene and many of the first generation Abstract Expressionists. 

In 1950, her exhibition career began when Adolph Gottlieb selected her work for inclusion in Fifteen Unknowns, an exhibition held in December at Kootz Gallery, New York. She had her first solo exhibition in 1951 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (NYC), and that same year was included in the seminal exhibition 9th St. Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture.

She soon began exhibiting internationally. In 1959, she won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris, and in 1966 represented the United States, along with three other artists, at the 33rd Venice Biennale. In 1960, she had her first major museum exhibiton at the Jewish Museum in New York, and another in 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was followed by an international tour.

Helen travelled widely during the next decades, and taught painting and drawing at institutions such as New York University, the School of Visual Arts (NYC), and Yale University (New Haven, Conneticut). She continued creating work and experimenting throughout her long career, and received numerous honorary doctorates, honors, and awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 2001. Her work is in the permanent collections of museums all over the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Centre Pompidou (Paris) and the Museum of Modern Art (New York). She died in 2011.

                                                                                           Mountains and Sea (1952) 
Helen’s work is characterised by:

- a completely flat painting surface 

- mainly large scale

- loose, gestural marks

- rough, freeform outlines in charcoal (in early work)

- soft edges, few brushmarks

- often splatters and drips

- soft colors - hazy, atmospheric 

- some areas raw, left untouched

                                                                                                 Jacob’s Ladder (1957) 

                                                                                                                                Europa (1957)


Helen pioneered the “soak-stain“ painting technique. She first started using this technique in 1952,  when she created her seminal painting, Mountain and Sea, inspired by her summer in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She poured a mixture of oil paints, thinned with turpentine, from coffee cans onto unsized, unstretched canvas that was laid on her studio floor. Rather than the paint forming a skin, it soaked into the weave of the raw canvas, giving the impression of a watercolor. The painting was a breakthrough for Helen, and was immediately influential for the artists who later formed the Color Field school of painting- including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who visited her studio in the spring of 1953 to see it. Louis called it a “revelation,” and Noland said that it "showed us a way to think about and use color.”

                                                                                             Ashes and Embers (1988)

1) Experimentation/freedom/discovery
Experimentation was a constant theme in Helen’s work. One of the first rules is no rules,” she said. “ 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. She declared herself “ an artist of paint, making discoveries,” and said that “painting is a constant process of renewal and discovery. You know it when you see it.” This spirit of experimentation and discovery was a constant throughout her long career, and led her in many different directions.

                                                                                         Ocean Drive West #1 (1974)

2) Landscapes
Helen often referenced nature in her work and her titles, but throughout her career hesitated to designate her work landscapes.“What concerns me when I work is not whether the picture is a landscape…or whether somebody will see a sunset in it,” she said, “ what concerns me is, did I make a beautiful picture?”  Still, she conceeded that ” if I am forced to associate, I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds, and distances held on a flat surface.”

                                                                                                 Seascape with Dunes (1962)

1) Pollock
Helen first encountered Pollock’s work in 1950, and said the encounter made her feel “blinded … It was so new, and so appealing, and so puzzling, and powerful, and real, and beautiful, and bewildering.”  It was not necessarily what he had done that had inspired her, but the fact that he had created something so new - Helen found in his work an invitation to “let it rip, let it [be] free, try it, run with it, fool around.”  In 1951, she visited Pollock at his studio and saw that he didn’t paint with just his hands, but with his whole body. She saw the potential for this in her own work, as well as in the way he allowed his paint to seep into the canvas’ weave. Both techniques intrigued her, and she soon built on them. Within a few years, her work would be seen as a bridge between Pollock and a new artistic movement.

                                                                                                  Grey Fireworks (1982) 
2) Education and teachers
Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo, an instructor at the Dalton school, was the “ first real artist “ Helen had met, and his instruction and encouragement was pivotal in her becoming an artist. Paul Feeley at Bennington was Helen’s next important instructor, not only teaching her about technique and art history, but how to analyze a painting. Helen noted that “we would really sift every inch of what it was that worked; or if it didn’t, why.”

                                                                                                       Star Gazing, (1989)

3) Arshile Gorky
Helen saw Gorky’s retrospective at the Whitney in 1951, and was highly affected by the exhibition, returning repeatedly to the works. Later, she would always mention Gorky as one of her greatest influences. “I’d say that Jackson P. & Gorky’s paintings are the only ones of a particular school that give me a real charge,” she said,“ that might compare—somewhat—to the excitement I now get from seeing a really great old master.”

4) Cubism 

Helen learned about Cubism from Feeley, and said that “ for me, learning cubism was the greatest freedom and exercise, really analyzing what cubism was about ... how things pushed each other around in a pseudo or ambiguous space.”


Between creating the soak-stain technique and revolutionizing the world of woodcut printmaking, Helen left her distinct mark on the art world. Although it took a long time for her to receive the credit that she deserved for her innovations, Helen is now one of the best known women artists in the world, and the passion and curiousity she brought to her work has inspired a whole new generation of painters to “ let it rip.”

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