Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was one of the great American artists of the twentieth century, distinguished amongst the second generation of post-war American abstract painters. She played a pivotal role in the movement, leading it away from action painting with her innovation towards Color Field painting, a technique of pouring and soaking an unprimed canvas in layers of thinned paint.

Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928. She grew up in New York City, and it was apparent from a young age that she had a deep interest in art. Her parents helped to nurture this during her youth, sending her to the Dalton School, where she received her earliest art instruction from Rufino Tamayo, learning about Cubism. Her education continued at Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied under Paul Feeley and later briefly with Hans Hofmann.

Her first professional exhibition was in 1950, when Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting, Beach, for the exhibition Fifteen Unknowns: Selected Artists of the Kootz Gallery. Frankenthaler’s first solo exhibition took place in 1951 at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. That same year she was also included in a landmark exhibition entitled 9th St. Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture.

In 1952, Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea. It was an innovation of American abstraction, created by pouring thinned paint onto an unprimed, raw canvas. She manipulated the paint from all sides, gently coaxing it to sink into the canvas. This work was the beginning of her Color Field paintings which Clement Greenberg called post-painterly abstraction.
Critic for the Observer, Nigel Gosling, wrote about Frankenthaler, “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 … They are vaguely feminine in the way water is feminine – dissolving and instinctive, and on an enveloping scale.”

Frankenthaler married artist and academic, Robert Motherwell in 1958. Both artists came from affluent families and spent several months after their wedding touring France and Spain before returning to America. The following year, Frankenthaler began to have a consistent presence in international exhibitions. She won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris in 1959. Her first major museum exhibition was in 1960 at the Jewish Museum in New York. Subsequently, her second was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1966, she represented the United States in the 33rd Venice Biennale alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Jules Olitski.

Frankenthaler produced work in a variety of mediums including printmaking, ceramics and sculpture, constantly experimenting throughout her career. Aside from her unique and innovative paintings, she was especially renowned for her printmaking. Her first introduction into printmaking was through lithography, which allowed her the freedom to create prints fluidly and closer to her painting style. She innovated printmaking techniques in each medium to suit her style, using many colors and washes in a meticulous process that yielded beautifully layered pieces with same gestural qualities of her paintings.

Some critics have suggested that her woodcuts have made the most original contribution to printmaking. When making her first woodcut, Frankenthaler was determined to transform the grainy, unforgiving block into vibrant, organic forms reminiscent of her paintings. With help from the studio, she worked to develop a new technique, using a jigsaw to cut separate shapes, and with a particular method of precise registration to eliminate the white space in between the blocks. This first woodcut print was named East and Beyond, a harmonious piece with depth and flow that transformed the medium for the future. East and Beyond was revolutionary in printmaking in the way that Mountains and Sea was with the Abstract Expressionist movement.

After her divorce from Motherwell in 1971, Frankenthaler married Stephen DuBrul in 1994, and moved to Long Island Sound, where she later died in 2011.

Helen Frankenthaler’s illustrious career has been the focus of many museum exhibitions. A major retrospective of her work was initiated by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and traveled to The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other exhibitions have been held in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Modern, London to name a few. When speaking on her work Frankenthaler said, “What concerns me when I work is not whether a picture is a landscape… or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is, did I make a beautiful picture?”

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