Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

By Eunice


Born December 12, 1928 in Manhattan, Helen Frankenthaler was raised alongside her two older sisters in a cultured family (her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge) in the Upper East Side.  Her parents supported her artistic talent by sending her to various progressive schools, and she learned under artists such as Rufino Tamayo (an abstract/surrealist-inspired painter). She also took summer trips with her family while growing up, which would influence her love for landscapes. As an adult, she had a five-year relationship with Clement Greenberg, a prominent art critic who, among other things, helped to propel Jackson Pollock’s career; then later on at the age of 30, she wedded artist Robert Motherwell (having both been born to wealthy families, they became known as the “golden couple” for their frequent entertaining), a marriage which would last for 13 years. As one can see, her life was always filled with artistic and cultural stimulation, and that was reflected in her trail-blazing career. Frankenthaler pioneered the Color Field movement (in fact, the term “Color Field painting” was first used to describe her works), and received the National Medal of Arts, among many other honors. She passed away in Darien, Connecticut on December 27, 2011 at the age of 83.



The Color Field movement, which emerged in the late 1940s as a sub-movement (alongside gestural painting) of Abstract Expressionism,  was monumental in that it was the first of its kind to completely do away with the strict “forms against backgrounds” recipe of most pieces of art up until then. Because the artists wanted to stop relying on illustrative figures and symbols as the means of expression in their art, they began to paint large swathes of color onto often huge, unframed canvases which were hung low to the ground. Because of this elimination of boundaries, at close range, the color field seemed to expand beyond the canvas itself and to almost envelop the viewer. Indeed the “figure” was the canvas itself, and the sheer size and visceral impact of the paintings often made for a spiritual experience for the viewer.

Style, Subject Matter, Technique & Their Influences:

Frankenthaler pioneered the “soak-stain” technique, where she thinned oil paint with turpentine and then applied it directly onto an untreated canvas. The paint would soak into the canvas, rather than simply sitting on top of it as was traditional practice with abstract expressionist painters at the time. As a result, Frankenthaler’s works often had a watercolor feel to them, with the thin washes of color creating both the form and the negative space in her works. For example, in Nepenthe, the light red swathe of color in the center creates a form (and thus provides a focal point for the viewer’s eye), while the yellow wash functions as the underlying “canvas.”

In another painting, Provincetown, the saturated blue field of paint overlays the lighter, blue-striped background. Because this background is the same color as the aforementioned form in the foreground, it prevents the form from becoming a harsh, isolated swath of color (as it could have been with a white, or otherwise warm-toned, backdrop). This makes the art seem very fluid and organic–that is, until the bright red and yellow accents come into play. The thin lines interrupt the smooth blue, cutting off the top and bottom of the canvas. Although this lessens the impact that the size of the canvas might have had without them, the now restricted height of the canvas emphasizes the horizontal form of the canvas–it seems to stretch to the right and left almost forever. This juxtaposition of the blue undefined, watery “oneness,” with the sharp edges and red splotch creates a tension which both pulls the viewer into the canvas and away from it, respectively.

As Southern Exposure and the aforementioned Nepenthe illustrate, adjacent colors would bleed into each other to create a blurred line of separation between them. This created an ethereal effect, which often lay hand in hand with Frankenthaler’s depictions of nature, such as in Mountains and Sea (Frankenthaler also used hard edges in her paintings, though, such as in Canyon).

Although Frankenthaler’s nature-inspired approach was different from most of the other Color Field artists in that she used representational forms to depict reality (rather than purely abstract, non-representational forms), her works created the same effect that the works of her peers’ did–they both seemed to envelop and almost overpower the viewer.

Starting in the 60s, Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paint thinned with water instead of her usual turpentine-thinned oil point. Later on, she also experimented with woodcuts, creating the same diluted, fluid and blurred effects in her prints as she often did in her paintings. Whatever the medium, she approached its application innovately, whether it was pouring paint directly onto the canvas or pushing it around with her feet or hands.

Compared Artist (21st Century):

Gregory Kaplowitz is a photographer based out of San Francisco. He uses various printing and processing techniques, such as filling broken analog cameras with glass and crystal pieces and then exposing them on positive film, to create his abstracted pieces.

Although they are digital, Kaplowitz’s pieces share many similarities with Frankenthaler’s. Firstly, although his pieces mostly consist of broad fields of similar colors, the balance of blurred elements with sharper “forms” creates variation within the pieces. For example, Epoch does this with the thick, blurred vertical stripes overlaying the sharper, micro-patterned “rays” (just as Frankenthaler’s Provincetown juxtaposes the saturated blue form with its lighter, thinly lined background).

They also often have an ethereal quality, and recall ideas of nature (for example, Spagyrics reminds me of a blooming flower, as does Frankenthaler’s last piece [the one I couldn’t find the title of]). Both artists also emphasize positive and negative space through the broad swathes of colors, like in Kaplowitz’s Untitled (Landscapes) and Frankenthaler’s Only Orange.

Epoch (2011), unique photograms, 8 x 10 in

Spagyrics (2009), digital c-print, 24 x 30 in

Spagyrics (2010), digital c-print, 24 x 30 in

Spagyrics (2010), digital c-print, 24 x 30 in

Untitled (Landscapes) (2006-2007), unique photograms, 8 x 10 in

Personal Reflection:


At first I mostly just liked Frankenthaler’s works because they are pretty and calm, but researching her made me realize that creating that effect is a lot more difficult than it looks. The way she applied paint in different layers so that the colors interacted with each other in a specific way reminded me of how Chuck Close focused on the interaction of colors to create an overall impression in his works (like in http://keithguvc.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/close-detail.gif ). This made me realize that although Color Field paintings may seem very simple and abstract, they do often manipulate the same artistic principles that realistic pieces of art do.


Mountains and Sea - Helen Frankenthaler

Mountains and Sea (1952), charcoal and oil on canvas, 220 x 297.8 cm

Only Orange - Helen Frankenthaler

Only Orange (1963), oil on canvas, 48 x 48.25 in

Provincetown - Helen Frankenthaler

Provincetown (1964), acrylic on canvas, 36.8 x 36.8 cm

Canyon (1965), acrylic on canvas, 44 x 52 in

Nepenthe - Helen Frankenthaler

Nepenthe (1972), aquatint on paper, 39.8 x 61.7 cm

Helen Frankenthaler.jpg (53266 bytes)

Viewpoint II (1979), acrylic on canvas, 81.25 x 94.5 in

Southern Exposure (2005), screenprint in colors on wove paper, 30.5 x 37 in


Sorry, really wanted to include this one, but couldn’t find the title/info


The Art Story Foundation. “Helen Frankenthaler.” The Art Story. Last modified
2014. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-frankenthaler-helen.htm.

Tilghman, Parker. “Work I Wish I Was Making: Gregory Kaplowitz.” Art Slant New
York. Last modified September 13, 2010. http://www.artslant.com/9/articles/


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