Tuesday 5 July 2011

Helen Frankenthaler - part 1

This is part one of a two-part post on the works of Helen Frankenthaler, abstract expressionist painter, and one-time wife of Robert Motherwell. Frankenthaler was born in New York in 1928. In 1945 she graduated from the Dalton School, where she studied with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. She later studied with Paul Feeley at Bennington College in Vermont, where she absorbed the visual language of Cubism and the formal structures of Old Master painting. After graduating in 1949, and having received a substantial inheritance, she studied privately with Hans Hofmann in 1950 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then returned to New York to paint full-time. Later that year while organising an exhibition at the Jacques Seligmann gallery, she met Clement Greenberg, through whom she would meet some of the central figures of the New York School, including Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith.

An exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler was focused on analysing and reproducing natural forms, as is apparent in Mountains and Sea (1952). Measuring approximately 3 metres wide and 2 metres high, Mountains and Sea matches the ambitious scale and gestural handling associated with the New York School, but Frankenthaler's method of paint application was markedly original: she thinned the oil paint to the consistency of watercolour so that it would soak into and stain the canvas rather than accumulate on its surface.

1952 Mountains and Sea 
Inspired by Pollock's drip style, her soak-in technique resulted in fresh, appealing expanses of colour that spurred similar experiments by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis (whom Greenberg took to Frankenthaler's studio in 1953) and prefigured Colour Field painting of the later 1950s and 1960s by Louis, Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frankenthaler herself.

In 1958 Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell. At about the same time she began experimenting with the relationship between fine lines and small, sun-like shapes. In the early 1960s she started producing paintings featuring a single stain or blot; she also began to use acrylic paint to create richly coloured canvases, such as Cape (Provincetown) (1964).

1964 Cape, Provincetown

Frankenthaler and Motherwell divorced in 1971, and several years later she bought a second home and studio in Connecticut, where she ventured into the production of welded-steel sculptures, prints, and illustrated books. Further experiments with other mediums led her to design the sets and costumes for a production by England's Royal Ballet in 1985. Frankenthaler continued to focus on painting throughout this period, and maintains her painting practice to the present day.

Frankenthaler has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and New York universities. Her first solo exhibition took place at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, in the autumn of 1951. Numerous solo exhibitions of her work have followed, including retrospectives at the Jewish Museum, New York (1960); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1969); Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1980); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1985); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1989).

Her many awards include First Prize for Painting at the first Paris Biennial (1959); Joseph E. Temple Gold Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia (1968); New York City Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture (1986); and Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association (1994). Frankenthaler lives and works in New York and Darien, Connecticut.

1958 Before the Caves

1961 Summerscene, Provincetown

1963 Blue Atmosphere

1964 Interior Landscape

1964 Magic Carpet

1967-70 Connected by Joy 
etching and aquatint

1971 Spanning

1972 Green Nest

1974 Robinson's Wrap 

1976 Desert Pass

1979 Viewpoint II

1981 A Green Thought in a Green Shade

1984 Covent Garden Study 

1984 Quattrocento 


1987 Broome Street at Night 
etching and aquatint

1987 Seeing the Moon on a Hot Summer Day 


  1. I am glad I am not the only one! I just get annoyed when people find out I am into comics and assume that I am a huge fan of his. Great post, and thanks for the link!

    Pop Art

  2. I tweeted this post today. Good selection of work, and bio.

  3. Beautiful work - Frankenthaler is a great inspiration for me and my work.


  4. Helen's color fields are just spectacular. I hope to achieve even a fraction of her freedom.

  5. Hello,

    just passing by & was finding overall blog refined & smart :)
    BRAVO !
    Anyway, there is one (small) error =
    "1961 May 26th Backwards" pic' isn't illustration of a work by Frankenthaler but Sam FRANCIS (1923 - 1994) ...
    Must be his "Bright Jade Ghost" lithograph from 1963.

    All the best & good wind beneath your wings :)

    Marc (from France !)

  6. Thank you, I'll check that out and amend.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.