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Cheat Sheet on Helen Frankenthaler
Here we get to now Helen Frankenthaler better and what makes her stand out as a female artist.
People 06 Dec 2022
Helen Frankenthaler in 1956. Photograph: Gordon Parks/Getty Images

Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928 – December 27, 2011) was an American abstract expressionist painter and printmaker known for her unique method of staining canvas with thin veils of colour. Having exhibited her work for over six decades (early 1950s until 2011), she spanned several generations of abstract painters while continuing to create important and ever-changing new work.

Here we get to now Helen Frankenthaler better and what makes her stand out as a female artist.

Younger Years

Unlike other artists of the time Frankenthaler, was born into a wealthy Manhattan family in New York City on Dec. 12, 1928,. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and the former Martha Lowenstein, an immigrant from Germany. Helen was their youngest daughter, she interested in art from early childhood, when she would dribble nail polish into a sink full of water to watch the colour flow.

A line, color, shapes, spaces, all do one thing for and within themselves, and yet do something else, in relation to everything that is going on within the four sides [of the canvas]. A line is a line, but [also] is a color. . . . It does this here, but that there. The canvas surface is flat and yet the space extends for miles. What a lie, what trickery—how beautiful is the very idea of painting.
—Helen Frankenthaler


Frankenthaler studied at both the Dalton School under muralist Rufino Tamayo and Bennington College in Vermont.  After graduating in 1949, she studied privately with Australian-born painter Wallace Harrison, and with Hans Hofmann in 1950.

Artistic Style

Throughout her artistic career that spanned nearly six decades, Frankenthaler went through an array of stylistic shifts. Initially associated with abstract expressionism because of her focus on forms latent in nature, Frankenthaler is identified with the use of fluid shapes, abstract masses, and lyrical gestures that forms her artwork. Her style is notable in its emphasis on spontaneity, as Frankenthaler herself stated, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.”

“One really beautiful wrist motion, that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it,” she once said of her practice. “It looks as if it were born in a minute.”
—Helen Frankenthaler

Frankenthaler at work in 1969. Her pigment became an integral part of the canvas. Photograph: Ernst Haas/Getty Images


Despite the early acknowledgment of Frankenthaler’s achievements by her fellow artists, wider recognition took some time. Her first major museum show, a retrospective of her 1950s work with a catalogue by the critic and poet Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was at the Jewish Museum in 1960.  Frankenthaler began exhibiting her large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in contemporary museums and galleries in the early 1950s. She was included Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition in 1964.

Love Life

Frankenthaler met Clement Greenberg in 1950 and had a five-year relationship with him. She was later married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), from 1958 during the second-generation Abstract Expressionist period, until they divorced in 1971. Both born of wealthy parents, the pair was known as “the golden couple” and noted for their lavish entertaining.  Like Frankenthaler, Motherwell was a leading first-generation member of the Abstract Expressionist group. Her marriage to Mr. Motherwell in 1958 gave the couple an art-world aura. They spent several leisurely months honeymooning in Spain and France. In Manhattan, they separated themselves from the downtown scene and established themselves in a house on East 94th Street, where they developed a reputation for luxurious entertaining. After their divorce, she departed from the first generation’s romantic search for the “sublime” to pursue her own path.

Detail from Mountains and Sea (1952). Photograph: Helen Frankenthaler/© DACS 2011

The work that made her famous

Frankenthaler’s official artistic career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition of Mountains and Sea. This work is identified as her most well-known painting because of her use first use of soak stain, which she later become her signature. Produced on her return to New York from a trip to Nova Scotia, the painting is a light-struck, diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water. Its delicate balance of drawing and painting, fresh washes of color (predominantly blues and pinks) make it a beautiful and memorable work of art.

“The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” Ms. Frankenthaler told an interviewer. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.” She later described the seemingly unfinished painting — which is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington — as “looking to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”

After Mountains and Sea was exhibited it was immediately influential for the artists who formed the Color Field school of painting, notable among them Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

Helen Frankenthaler in her studio in Darien, Conn., in 2003.Credit…Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

The social butterfly

“Helen loved to entertain,” said Ann Freedman, the former president of Knoedler & Company, Ms. Frankenthaler’s dealer until its recent closing. “She enjoyed feeding people and engaging in lively conversation. And she liked to dance. In fact, you could see it in her movements as she worked on her paintings.” Frankenthaler had a great passion for dancing, which she showcased in 1985 at a White House dinner to honor the Prince and Princess of Wales with John Travolta.

“I’d waited a lifetime for a dance like this,” she wrote in a 1997 Op-Ed article for The New York Times. “He was great!”

Helen Frankenthaler’s “Nature Abhors a Vacuum,” 1973. Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Gift of Audrey and David Mirvish, Toronto, Canada. National Gallery of Art, Washington.Credit…Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York — via National Gallery of Art

Her stance on feminism

Frankenthaler did not consider herself a feminist: she said “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.” However, despite Frankenthaler’s stance on feminism Mary Beth Edelson’s feminist piece Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972) appropriated Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with the heads of notable women artists including Frankenthaler collaged over the heads of Christ and his apostles. This image, addressing the role of religious and art historical iconography in the subordination of women, became “one of the most iconic images of the feminist art movement.”

Where her work can be found today

Today, Frankenthaler’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

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