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 Helen Frankenthaler  (1928 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: abstract imagery-stain painting

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Hofburg Palace, oil on canvas
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

She was born in New York City on December 28, 1928, the third and youngest daughter of a noted justice of the New York Supreme Court and his German born wife.  She attended the exclusive Brearley School in Manhattan and the Dalton School where her art teacher was Rufino Tamayo.  He suggested that she go to Bennington College to study painting; her instructor there was Paul Feeley, an academic Cubist. She graduated from Bennington College in 1949 and studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the summer of 1950. 

In her early days as an artist, Frankenthaler shared a Greenwich Village studio and its rent with Friedel Dzubas, whom she had met at the home of the critic Clement Greenberg.  Her circle of friends included Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell.  In April 1958 she married the leading Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell.  Their honeymoon was spent traveling in France and Spain and they returned to a brownstone in New York.  Their marriage ended in divorce in 1970.

When Jackson Pollock first exhibited some of his paintings in 1951, they exerted a great influence on Frankenthaler. Their scale. free graphic rhythms, and color impressed her strongly; but above all she was struck by Pollock's method of dripping paint directly onto the raw canvas, emphasizing both the flatness of the painting and the physical actuality of the support.

Carrying this technique still further, Frankenthaler thins her pigment with large amounts of turpentine so that they soak directly through the unprimed cloth and stains it.  The resultant image no longer lies on top of the picture plane but is embedded within; the transparent mat colors of varying intensity modulate from light to dark without creating any illusion that they exist in a space other than that of the woven textural surface.  Frankenthaler also adopted Pollock's practice of painting with the canvas stretched out on the floor, allowing the artist to be "in" the picture, work from all four sides, and produce an image seen from above.  She has always delighted in in the way paint behaves on paper.  The freshness, directness and potency added to her dramatic use of color, line and space.

In the early 1960s Frankenthaler switched from oils to acrylics, with which she could achieve a watercolor effect by thinning the paint even further.  She experimented with the use of sponges, heavier brushes, thicker globs of paint, etc. She influenced a whole generation of color-field painters, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

Sources include:
An initation to See with comments by Helen M. Frankenthaler
Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers, 1986-7 
Karen Wilkin in Reviews column in Artnews, February 1996
World Artists 1950-80 by Claude Marks
Ruth Bass in Reviews column in ARTnews, September 1989 
Joanna Shaw-Eagle in Artist’s Dialogue in Architectural Digest (date unknown).
Time Magazine, March 28, 1969
In Pursuit of Beauty in Newsweek magazine, June 12,
Working Papers by Maurice Poirier in ARTnews, Summer 1985

Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:

Added note:
Helen Frankenthaler passed away after a long illness on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Born in Manhattan, New York,  Helen Frankenthaler became the leader of the Color Field painters in New York City, emerging in the 1950s under the influence of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.  Her work is a transition from Abstract Expressionism.

She was educated at New York's Dalton School, and in high school studied with Rufino Tamayo and later with Hans Hofmann.  She attended Bennington College.  Her family vacationed in Maine where she learned to love open views of land and sea, subject matter and an attitude of expansiveness reflected in her canvases.

With a studio in New York, her mentor became art critic Clement Greenberg who introduced her to most of the prominent 1950s artists including Pollock and DeKooning who, in turn, became her inspirations for gestural technique, Action Painting.  From 1958 to 1971, she was married to artist Robert Motherwell.

Her stain painting technique was novel.  Rather than painting on a primed canvas, she poured paint over an unprimed surface that allowed the paint to soak into the canvas.  This staining and the process involved became her trademark style, and a whole generation of artists, known as Color Field painters, followed her.  Her large studio has been in New York City.

She had a brief period when she experimented with sculpture.  In the summer of 1972, she worked with Anthony Caro in his studio in London, and she used some of the steel that Caro had acquired from the estate of David Smith.  She had first met Caro in New York in 1959, and they had formed a friendship during which she expressed an interest in experimenting with sculpture.  During the two weeks, she completed ten welded steel sculptures in abstract style, and titles included Heart of London, Ceiling Horses, Matisse Table, Ten After All and Ceiling Horses.  However, after this intense period of sculpting, "Frankenthaler never again muade sculptures in steel, and the sojourn in Caro's studio was never repeated.  The energetic, vital constructions she completed in London leave us wishing she'd gone back often." (Wilkin).  In 2006, Knoedler & Company held an exhibit of the work she completed with Caro.

In 1999, she won the Jerusalem Prize for Arts and Letters, given by the Friends of Israel's National Academy of Arts and Design.

Partial source:
Karen Wilkin, "Frankenthaler's Nerves of Steel", Art in America, May 2007, pp. 184-187


Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, E-O):
Over a career that spans six decades, Frankenthaler’s art has received great critical acclaim and has been noted for its painterly virtuosity and celebration of experimentation. As the artist herself described: “I am an artist of paint, making discoveries.” (1) Perhaps even more important than the artist’s technical innovations is her unique sense of “place.” She invites the viewer into pictures that are themselves environments—places where she has been, places she has dreamed of, and abstract places of personal and artistic interests. Writing in response to a 1975 exhibition of the artist’s work at André Emmerich Gallery, the art critic Hilton Kramer praised her ability to conjure novel viewing experiences: “The paintings of Helen Frankenthaler occupy a distinctive place in the recent history of American abstract painting….We feel ourselves in the presence of imaginary landscapes—landscapes distilled into chromatic essence.” (2) "Lunar Edge," in its radiance and rich color that glows from within, approximates the surreal feeling of being perched on the edge of the moon alongside an infinite expanse of space.

The luminosity of Frankenthaler’s paintings derives from her unusual “soak stain” method. Frankenthaler’s ground-breaking and most well-known work, Mountains and Sea (on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), from 1952, launched the style of painting in the 1960s that would become known as Color Field painting. In this work, she allowed thinner pigments to soak directly into the canvas. This staining created a heightened tension between image and abstraction. The weave of the raw canvas was visible within the painted forms, and, at the same time, the visibility of the canvas beneath the painted surface negated the sense of illusion and depth. In this way, Frankenthaler’s innovative device called attention to both the material and the nature of the medium. The technique also generated a new range of liquid-like atmospheric effects reminiscent of the watercolors of John Marin.

In 1953, hearing about the painting from Clement Greenberg, the Washington artists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland made a special visit to New York to view it and were stunned by the chromatic effects of the stained canvas. Noland recalled that it “showed us a way to think about and use color.” (3) From 1952 onward, Frankenthaler would regularly stain her canvases multiple times to achieve spatially complex, transparent layers. In the 1970s, in particular, she adopted an increasingly wide variety of textures of paint, such that the color often appears suspended within the viscous paint medium. “Up close,” observed Thomas B. Hess, “you can see how [pigments] have been meshed and folded, one into the other, for unnamable hues—strange bicolors, like the green-orange iridescence of a scarab’s wing or the indigo-yellow of certain plums.” (4)

Frankenthaler’s mastery of paint reveals her training under influential and accomplished instructors. She studied with Rufino Tamayo while at the Dalton School, New York, with Paul Feeley (1910–66) at Bennington College, Vermont (1946–9), and privately with Wallace Harrison in 1949 and Hans Hofmann in 1950. In that year she met Clement Greenberg, and through him, became acquainted with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman and other members of the New York School. In 1950 Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting "Beach" for inclusion in the exhibition "Fifteen Unknowns" at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York. The following November, Frankenthaler received her first solo exhibition, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. In these several years after graduating from Bennington College in 1949, the artist took advantage of New York’s thriving art scene, visiting museum exhibition and fellow artists’ gallery shows, and formed a number of lasting and deep friendships, including with the poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. O’Hara authored the catalogue essay for Frankenthaler’s first retrospective exhibition, at the Jewish Museum in 1960.

Like several of the exponents of Abstract Expressionism, she was concerned with the forms and energies latent in nature. She often characterized herself as more interested in the drawing of color than color itself, for in her draughtsman-like approach and “well ordered collisions” of paint and drawing, she generated motion in her compositions. In this painterly approach, she stands out among her contemporaries, creating a unique body of work that lies in between the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and the restrained Color Field approach of Louis, Noland, and Mark Rothko.

From 1958 to 1971, Frankenthaler was married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell, and the two maintained studios in New York and Provincetown. She also traveled extensively, often with Clement Greenberg, and loosely derived inspiration from the places she visited for the color palettes or moods of her paintings. Italy, France, Nova Scotia, Majorca, Barcelona, Germany, the Netherlands, Arizona, and Provincetown all proved inspirational to the artist. During her travels, she visited renowned art museums, studying old masters, and later she created paintings inspired by artist’s works in these collections, ranging from Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya, to Manet, Matisse, and even the Japanese artist Hiroshige. Her paintings have also drawn comparisons to J.M.W. Turner’s exquisite meditations on mid-winter sunsets and Frederic Edwin Church’s "Cotopaxi." (5)

Her artistic experimentation was not limited to painting; indeed, she explored pictorial space in a broad variety of media, including painting on canvas and paper, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, and tapestry design. In the 1960s, Frankenthaler began to make prints in the Universal Limited Art Editions workshop on Long Island, and also crafted earthenware plates at Bennington Pottery in Vermont, along with David Smith. She reprised her interest in ceramics in the early-mid 1970s, when she executed a tile wall commissioned for the North Central Bronx Hospital, New York. In 1972, during a burst of new energy, Frankenthaler welded ten steel sculptures in the studio of her dear friend Anthony Caro. That year she exhibited these sculptures as well as some works on paper at André Emmerich Gallery in New York.

As her range of artistic activities expanded, so did her international and national reputation. Frankenthaler has received numerous accolades, including prestigious awards and honorary degrees from Harvard University; Yale University; Smith College; Moore College of Art, Philadelphia; Amherst College; New York University; and Brandeis University. Her works appear in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of the 20th Century, Vienna; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and numerous other public institutions.

1. Quoted in E.A. Carmean, Jr., "Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective" (New York: Abrams; Fort Worth, Texas: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989), 12.
2. Hilton Kramer, “Art: Lyric Vein in Frankenthaler’s Paintings,” "The New York Times," 15 November 1975, 21.
3. Quoted in Carmean, Jr., "Helen Frankenthaler," 12.
4. Cited in Elderfield, "Frankenthaler," 297.
5. Most notably to Church by E.C. Goossen in “Helen Frankenthaler: Notes on Some Recent Paintings,” Bennington Review (April 1978): 46, and to Turner by Michael McKinnon, comp., "The History of Western Art," sec. 31: "Art of the ‘70s" (London: Visual Publications International, 1982).

© Copyright 2011 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from Bernard Jacobson Gallery:
Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928.  She attended Dalton School, where she studied art with Rufino Tamayo, with whom she continued to study after graduating.  At Bennington College she studied art with Paul Feeley and, during non-resident term, with Wallace Harrison in New York.  In 1949, Frankenthaler received a bachelor of arts degree from Bennington.  In 1950, she studied for three weeks with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown.

Frankenthaler has taught and lectured throughout the world and served on the Fulbright Selection Committee and the National Council on the Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts, among other such posts.  She received numerous awards internationally, including the New York City Mayors Award of Honour for Arts and Culture and the Distinguished Artists Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association, 1994, and countless honorary degrees.

Major exhibitions include:
1951 Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York (first solo exhibition)
1957 Young America 1957, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
1960 Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings, The Jewish Museum, New York.
1975 Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings 1969 -1974, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and United States tour.
1980 Helen Frankenthaler: Works of the Seventies, Saginaw Art Museum, Saginaw, MI, and Michigan touring;
Helen Frankenthaler: Prints 1961 - 1979, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA, and United States tour.
1998 After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956 - 1959, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York;
Helen Frankenthaler: Three Decades of Paintings, Ameringer Howard, Boca Raton, FL. 2000 Frankenthaler on Paper, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London.

Monographs and Major Exhibition Catalogues: (Very Selected Readings)
Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings. Exhibition catalogue with essay by Frank OHara. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1960.
Helen Frankenthaler. Exhibition catalogue with essay by E.C. Goosen. Bennington, Vermont: Bennigton College, 1978.
Exhibition catalogue with essay by Carl Belz Waltham, Massachusetts: Rose Art Museum, 1981.
Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, exhibition catalogue with essay by E.A. Carmean Jr. New York and Fort Worth, Texas: Harry N. Abrams and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989.

Cited Articles:
Frank OHara, "Helen Frankenthaler," Art News (December 1954):53. Hilton Kramer, "Art: Special Breed at Folk Art Show," The New York Times (December 2, 1977). Arther C. Danto, "Helen Frankenthaler," The National (August 21/28, 1989): 217-20.

Honorary Degrees:
Doctor of Human Letters, Skidmore College, 1969
Doctor of Fine Arts, Smith College, 1973
Doctor of Fine Arts, Moore College, 1974
Doctor of Fine Arts, Bard College, 1976
Doctor of Art, Radcliffe College (centennial), 1978
Doctor of Art, Amherst College, 1979
Doctor of Fine Arts, New York University, 1979
Doctor of Art, Harvard University, 1980
Doctor of Fine Arts, Philadelphia College of Art, 1980 Doctor of Fine Arts, Syracuse University, 1985

Biography from Leslie Sacks Fine Art:
Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York in 1928 where she was to spend most of her life. Helen Frankenthaler studied at a number of art schools and was taught at one stage by Hofmann. By 1950 Helen Frankenthaler had met many of the main figures of Abstract Expressionism. In 1958 Helen Frankenthaler married the painter Robert Motherwell.

Helen Frankenthaler became the first American painter after Jackson Pollock to see the implications of the color staining of raw canvas to create an integration of color and ground in which foreground and background cease to exist. Mountains and Sea, 1952, Helen Frankenthaler's first “stained painting”, marked a turning point in her career. According to the critic, Clement Greenberg, this painting was the 'first monument of Post-Painterly Abstraction', it is certainly one of the most important works in the 'Colour-Field' style. In Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler poured paint directly onto the un-primed surface of a canvas, allowing the color to soak into its support, rather than painting on top of an already sealed canvas as was customary. This highly intuitive process, known as "stain painting," became the hallmark of Helen Frankenthaler's style and enabled her to create color-filled canvases that seemed to float on air.

Helen Frankenthaler employed an open composition, frequently building around a free-abstract central image and also stressing the picture edge. The irregular central motifs float within a rectangle, which, in turn, is surrounded by irregular light and dark frames. These frames create the feeling that the center of the painting is opening up in a limited but defined depth. She took from Pollock the notion of fusing drawing and painting, translating this idea into her own suggestive, mysterious calligraphy.

In 1960 Helen Frankenthaler made her first prints. Since then, Helen Frankenthaler worked with a variety of printmaking techniques in addition to painting, using each of these media to explore pictorial space through the interaction of color and line on a particular surface. One of her most successful prints is Essence Mulberry, 1977, inspired by an exhibit of medieval prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Throughout her career, Helen Frankenthaler won a number of awards and distinctions. The stain technique Helen Frankenthaler made famous was an integral part of her work throughout her entire career. Although the paintings are abstract, a strong suggestion of landscape is often apparent, and they have been praised for their lyrical qualities.

Helen Frankenthaler died in December 2011.

Biography from RoGallery.com:
Born in Manhattan, New York, she became the leader of the Color Field painters in New York City, emerging in the 1950s under the influence of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Her work is a transition from Abstract Expressionism.

She was educated at New York's Dalton School, and in high school studied with Rufino Tamayo and later with Hans Hofmann. She attended Bennington College. Her family vacationed in Maine where she learned to love open views of land and sea, subject matter and an attitude of expansiveness reflected in her canvases.

With a studio in New York, her mentor became art critic Clement Greenberg who introduced her to most of the prominent 1950s artists including Pollock and DeKooning, her inspirations for gestural technique, Action Painting. From 1958 to 1971, she was married to artist Robert Motherwell.

Her technique was novel. Rather than painting on a primed canvas, she poured paint over an unprimed surface that allowed the paint to soak into the canvas. This staining and the process involved became her trademark style, and a whole generation of artists, known as Color Field painters, followed her. Her large studio has been in New York City.

In 1999, she won the Jerusalem Prize for Arts and Letters, given by the Friends of Israel's National Academy of Arts and Design.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


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