Artist Profile: Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was an American painter and printmaker, who is referred to as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist artist. The 'first' generation of Abstract Expressionists included Willem de KooningJackson PollockMark RothkoLee Krasner, and others; they are also referred to as the New York School of painters, who came to prominence in the late 1940's and early '50's in America. The second generation is just that - the painters who followed shortly, and who were influenced by the original Abstract Expressionists; this group also included Grace Hartigan, Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell. This first group of artists was perhaps held together more by an aesthetic philosophy than by style; their ways of working and stylistic tendencies varied greatly, from the serene color rectangles of Mark Rothko, to the slashing gestural painting of Franz Kline, which was also called Action painting, because of its grand gestural compositions and large canvases.
Frankenthaler was born in 1928 in New York, and attended the Dalton private school, where she studied painting with the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo. She then went on to Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied art, in particular the Cubist movement. During her college years she also traveled to Europe. When she graduated, she moved to New York City, and there came to know the art critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced her to some of the Abstract Expressionist artists. She also studied for a short time with Hans Hofmann, one of the initiators of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
After she observed Jackson Pollock creating his "drip" paintings, she was inspired to start placing her unprimed canvases on the floor, creating her images by pouring thinned-down oil paint across the canvas, and allowing the paint to flow and soak into the canvas fabric to create the forms. Because it is oil-based, oil paint left a "halo" of oil seepage around the painted areas of the unprimed fabric. When acrylic paint (water-based paint) was introduced in the early 1960's, she began using it because it produced the more 'liquid' quality she wanted, and left no halo on the fabric. She has said that she feels a great affinity with water - swimming in it, looking at it, etc., and that fluidity is central to her work. She returned to more traditional methods of painting briefly, then went back to her pour method, which came to be called "stained canvas" painting. Her images evoked general and remembered landscapes, with allusions to earth, water and sky, and were hailed in the art world as a new direction for abstraction. The young painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis were both influenced by her work, which came to be called color-field painting, and lyrical abstraction.
Frankenthaler arrived in New York in the early 1950's, when Abstract Expressionism was at its peak of influence. She had been influenced in her early artistic studies by the work of PicassoWassily KandinskyJoan MiroArshile Gorky, and her teachers Rufino Tamayo and Hans Hofmann. In New York, she also studied at the Art Students League. Rather than being influenced by the action painting of de Kooning, Frankenthaler was affected more by seeing Jackson Pollock's black-and-white paintings, where he placed the canvas on the floor and proceeded to paint while walking around and through the canvas - replacing the traditional brush and easel with drips and gestures of paint.
When a canvas is primed before painting, it is usually coated with an opaque white priming layer, which is designed to keep the paint from contacting the bare canvas fabric. Because Frankenthaler left the cotton canvas unprimed, its natural off-white color became the color of the ground. In this sense, perhaps she was the first artist to include the canvas as part of the image, rather than just the support for the image. (In visual art, the ground is the actual and pictorial painting surface; the term figure refers to the form(s) painted on this surface.) In the 1960's, she began to leave some of this natural-colored ground unpainted, which gave her work a sense of airiness (it could "breathe"); and when she poured the often transparent paints over this ground, this corroborated the sense of air and space. When she poured multiple transparent layers of color onto the ground, this created a sense of depth similar to a watercolor effect, which when combined with the "empty" areas created a sense of advancing and receding space in the image. This modern/contemporary sense of the simultaneous flatness and depth of the image is also present in her work - a legacy of Cezanne. Rather than being separate figure and ground, or form and background, her images are an equal opposition of positive and negative space - a common practice in 20th century painting. (Positive space refers to the painted forms, and negative space refers to the "empty" space around them (also called background), so that in a portrait, the person depicted is the positive form/space, and the 'background' is the negative space in the image.)
Although her work is abstract, the images were often remembered or imagined landscapes - sort-of personalized landscapes, concerned greatly with the fluidity of the paint and the image. Sometimes she was inspired by her travels to Europe and Nova Scotia to create images evoking these landscapes. Like other Abstract Expressionists, such as Arshile Gorky, her work was less concerned with the appearance of nature than with actual natural processes, such as the flow of liquids or the organic growth process itself. Frankenthaler's work is considered to have ushered in a new direction for abstraction. Her work became well known and respected in the art world in the 1950's, bringing her much recognition and many honors. She taught in a number of colleges and universities, including Yale, New York University, Harvard and Princeton, and had shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as around the world. She also showed with a number of prominent New York galleries. In 1958 she married the Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell; they were divorced in 1971. She has also been the subject of a documentary film (see link at end of profile). She passed away on December 27, 2011 at the age of 83.
Her work is exquisitely beautiful, something that serious modern and contemporary art is often not supposed to be. Visually, her colors are beautiful; they and their interactions are unexpected and evocative, suggesting such natural and colossal events as volcanoes and supernova, and caves deep in the earth. Her use of color is highly original, and some of the colors, like hot pink, are also completely unexpected in 'high' art, but she makes them "work" in the image. Her more recent work uses very bright and intense colors. Her colors also convey great expressiveness and emotion - elegant, subtle and restrained. Her shapes are also beautifully handled, from freely twisting lines to vast and fathomless areas of color. Painted or poured forms sometimes seem spontaneous, even playful, but never haphazard. Her sense of space is amazing; some of her more recent paintings remind me of the vast reaches of outer space, where forms and void combine in cosmic occurrences. Some of these striking images have extremely dramatic color and spatial relationships, like bright Chinese red and black; or a metallic gray and black. She also uses value (lights and darks) in a way that provides the utmost in spatial depth. These works may suggest landscape, but I think they really convey an internal landscape - a sense of self-reflection. They are sophisticated and controlled images, yet they are painted seemingly with such freedom; a paradox of control and abandon. Because she uses unprimed canvas, the canvas texture shows through in painted and unpainted areas, equally throughout the image. This helps to provide a visual unity and all-over feel in the images, even though she does not employ a modern  "all-over" type composition, such as that used by Jackson Pollock in his work (where there is no focal point in the image, rather all parts of the image are of equal importance).
Nancy Doyle
   Fine Art
The name color-field painting refers to work which includes large areas (fields) of color; perhaps Matisse was the first painter to work this way with his paintings, such as his Red Studio in the early 20th century. Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko also worked with large rectangles of color in his work; Jules Olitski is also considered a color-field painter. Because the work of color-field painters is often very large, this enhances the sense of 'field,' and is part of the power of these works when viewed in a museum or gallery setting. (Perhaps this is similar to the sense we experience when we look at fields of color in nature, whether it is the vast blue ocean or a wheat-colored field of grain; there is something soothingly expansive in this sensation.) In particular, many of Frankenthaler's works are as large as 9 feet across; seeing a small reproduction online or in a book simply does not convey the response generated by such large images - not only because of the effect of the large size, but because creating such large images is so much more difficult than creating the same image in a small size. It's one thing to carry through in a small format, but to do so on a grand scale carries much more of a 'degree of difficulty' factor - particularly with regard to the expressiveness of the work. The gestural painting of many Abstract Expressionists was based on the ample gesture; having the "spontaneous" gesture be simultaneously large in size involves a much harder process, which though difficult, needs to appear "effortless" in its expression. The term lyrical abstraction is perhaps concerned more with poetic expression than with the action-based abstraction of Abstract Expressionism. 
As well as painting on canvas and paper, she also made welded steel sculpture, worked in ceramics, illustrated books, made tapestries, and created set and costume design for the ballet. She also created prints with the mediums of etching, lithography, woodcut and more. Many of these prints were created at the well known printing studio of Kenneth Tyler (Tyler Graphics) in New York state. Printmaking tends to be a very technical, un-spontaneous medium, yet Frankenthaler's prints have the same fluid, spontaneous quality of her paintings. In particular, woodcuts are a relatively rigid medium, as many of us will remember if we did wood- or linoleum-cuts in school. I think the natural inclination of the wood-gouging tool is to cut sharp, straight lines, and not very effortlessly. Frankenthaler's woodcuts, which contain as many as 100+ colors, appear to have been blown onto the handmade paper used in the printing process, with such softness and delicacy. This is a feat all by itself. One image, Madame Butterflywas created in 2000 with over 100 colors, and is about 42" x 80," and creates an expansive horizontal image. Many of the colors were transparent, which allowed the layers of color to affect one another and created a rich depth and radiance, and in some areas the grain of the wood actually shows up in the image. This print was created at Tyler Graphics using traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e carving and registering woodcut techniques, and was printed on elegant handmade paper made especially for the edition. This results in a print which resembles Japanese prints, where again the fluidity of the image appears effortless, but the reality is a difficult, effort-filled process. The title of the print comes from the opera Madame Butterfly, which tells the story of a Japanese woman. The final image also resembles Asian art, in its contemplative, flat, non-representational style.
As with other female painters, such as Georgia O'Keeffe, the idea of a uniquely feminine sensibility is sometimes applied to Frankenthaler's work.  O'Keeffe actually stopped painting flowers because the (male) art critics always referred to their 'obvious' vaginal imagery; she insisted that this was not her intention. There is a stereotyped idea that women, because of their ability to give birth, have a special connection to the creative process, and to nature. Words like delicate, graceful, feminine, intuitive, poetic, natural, organic, etc. have often been ascribed to the work of female artists. In the 1970's, women artists began to explore whether women did in fact have certain characteristics in their work. The artist Judy Chicago has explored this idea to a great extent, including writing a book about it. I guess the jury is still out on this question; some women artists insist that they have no such motives or influence; some are very clearly tuned into this notion. Frankenthaler has said that her work is not directly related to this idea; that like other women artists, she is affected more by art history and traditions in her work; that art is sexless. But as one of the few prominent women artists in the 1950's, her "too poetic" work can be contrasted with the masculine nature of Abstract Expressionist male artists, with their emphasis on 'action' painting and physicality. This is an interesting field of study, and writers and critics have pointed to the 'organic' forms of women artists such as O'Keeffe and Frankenthaler in their 'emotional' relationship to landscape, which is more remembered than depicted. The qualities of sublimity and grandeur, the idea of expressing the inexpressible in their abstractions, is mentioned.
Frankenthaler has described her way of beginning a painting as "making a start somewhere and then seeing what happens through the sustained act of painting..." This is a common practice for modern and contemporary artists, particularly abstract painters. Willem de Kooning used a similar process in his work, where he would start with an arbitrary letter or number, and then elaborate on it to create his compositions. Any painter, whether representational or abstract, uses this process to a greater or lesser extent, in the sense that decisions about composition, color, space, etc. are made based on what you see before you on the canvas - you work with what you have now, similar to a cook who tastes the soup and then decides what additional vegetables or spices should go into it. This is a very instinctual way to work, and is in contrast to the traditional method of doing a number of preliminary drawing and compositional studies for paintings, as they did during the Renaissance and up through the mid-19th century. The more spontaneous modern method allows for unexpected directions, happy accidents and self-discovery in art - a reflection of the 20th and 21st centuries' more casual approach to music, literature, etc., and perhaps a reflection of the modern preoccupation with psychology, philosophy, etc. - a more 'existential' mindset, a questioning of preconceptions and dogma, and the emphasis on the importance of the individual intention, rather than a collective conformity. This existential approach was one of the characteristics of the Abstract Expressionist movement, with its emphasis on the expressive purpose of the individual artist.
The art form of jazz also made its entrance in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps another example of this more casual approach. Although jazz can have rigorous musical structures, it often has the improvisational quality that stamps it as jazz. This spontaneity in the playing in no way implies a lack of validity or quality in the music; the musicians are usually experienced and knowledgeable about their music and their instruments. It is the same with art; you train and study for a long time, and then you let yourself fly freely, create and express. It is perhaps the giving of permission to trust oneself, in a way that was done previous to the rigid structures and methods of classical composing; a more ancient naturalness, and freedom of thought, without the strictures of Victorian rules of behavior.

In Frankenthaler's work, her freedom is balanced by her control; her years of painting experience and artistic maturity allowed her to create great images, even though they were done in a way that allows for more spontaneity than perhaps brush and easel painting do. In a way this is similar to Van Gogh's paintings, many of which were done in a few hours, yet they are "perfectly realized masterpieces," worthy of the greatest Renaissance master. For it is not the amount of time and effort put into the work, or how it is created, that constitute the artistic merit; it is the quality of the image itself, which is dependent perhaps on the mental clarity, maturity and focus of the artist. She has said, "I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute," from Frankenthaler by Barbara Rose, 1975.
She has also 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." Her work is dynamic in its perfect and poetic inter-relationships of color, form and space. Its abstract nature results in spiritual essence over matter, abstract over representational. It is like a composition by Bach; when we hear it, we don't ask what it is about. We listen to its beauty, and its beauty comes from its perfect musical structure and its expression.

Learn more about her life and work at, and see Frankenthaler's paintings and prints here, and information about books, videos and links here.
Small Paintings
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Drawing I: Contour
Drawing II: Mass
Drawing III: Gesture
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Design II: History
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Design V: Principles
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Artist Profiles:

Paul Cezanne
Martin Puryear
Berthe Morisot
Louise Bourgeois
Pierre Bonnard
Robert Rauschenberg
Arshile Gorky
Christo &
Joseph Cornell
Henri Matisse
Agnes Martin
Claude Monet
Nam June Paik
Faith Ringgold
Fiona Foley
Joan Miro
Janet Fish
Robert Irwin
Caio Fonseca
Computer Art
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Flower Note Cards
Getting Discouraged
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Color Mixing
The Correct Way
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Notes on Art-Making II
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Self-Critique of My Work
Digital Photographs
Evolution of a Painting