Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York City, in 1928, the youngest daughter of a New York Supreme Court Justice. Frankenthaler received the finest private progressive education New York City had to offer. She attended Bennington College in Vermont from 1945 to 1949, where she studied art and served as editor of the college newspaper. After college she returned to New York City and immersed herself in the art scene.
Frankenthaler painted in a quasi-Cubistic style during her first years in New York, being well grounded in Cubism by her teachers. She combined full and profile views and attempted to integrate flatness with an illusion of depth. Frankenthaler's early works emphasized the element of drawing. Her 1951 work, Abstract Landscape, shows space created through a series of planes parallel to the picture plan receding behind each other, which was typical of Cubist composition.
From 1951 to 1952, Frankenthaler's style changed. She saw Jackson Pollock's work and was completely overwhelmed by it. She was impressed with the way in which the works were created, specifically his black-and-white stain paintings. Frankenthaler's paintings were first shown in New York City at the Seligman Gallery in 1950 and she had her first one-person show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951. The paintings in this exhibit led to an important new technique, which allowed the paint to soak into the weave of the canvas. This method eliminated brushwork and texture. In these paintings, the canvas was used as an essential part of the painting, bringing it into the foreground rather than using it only as support for the paint. This process of staining uses very thin paint, which bleeds into the fibers of the cotton canvas and becomes part of the canvas. Before Frankenthaler, most painters painted on canvas and coated the raw canvas with a material called gesso to protect the canvas from the effect of oil paint. The oil in oil paint had been known for centuries to cause canvas fibers to eventually rot if not isolated from the paint.
In 1953, two artists, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, visited Frankenthaler in her studio. These Washington, D. C., artists were so inspired by her use of color that they adopted her technique of staining paint onto raw canvas. Clement Greenberg, a critic, named this style of painting Post-Painterly Abstraction.
In 1958, Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist, and in 1966 the couple was chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. During the 1960's, Frankenthaler's color had become clearer and more expressive, and she used a more formal structure. These paintings became more chromatic rather than gestural as she began to use acrylic paint. Her forms grew larger and were more consciously shaped. In 1969, the Whitney Museum in New York City held a Frankenthaler retrospective, which was followed by a European tour.
Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler were divorced in 1970. Frankenthaler continues to be active as an artist.
The following web sites will give you more information about Frankenthaler as well as displaying fine examples of her paintings.
Page author: C.A.