Art is always a part of my mental landscape, flowing deep into my creative crevices like liquid gold. I’m not big on abstract art, but I am drawn to some pieces- as is the case with Helen Frankenthaler. I fell in love with her work… go figure. 😉
Helen Frankenthaler was among the most influential artists of the mid-twentieth 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.