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Helen Frankenthaler

American, 1928-2011


Curating Works


Helen Frankenthaler was born in Manhattan, New York in 1928 to Alfred Frankenthaler, a respected New York State Supreme Court judge. She was encouraged to pursue a professional career after graduating from Dalton School in 1945; she also attended Bennington College in Vermont. At Bennington College, she absorbed the visual language of Cubism and the formal structures of Old Master painting and became determined to pursue art full time. After graduating in 1949 with a substantial inheritance, she studied privately with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then returned to New York to paint full-time. Once in New York, she met Clement Greenberg, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith. An exponent of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler was focused on analyzing and reproducing natural forms. Inspired by Pollock's drip style, Frankenthaler's technique of staining pigment into raw canvas is through pouring pigment directly onto the canvas laid on the floor. Instead of enamel however, she poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it. This staining method emphasized the flat surface over illusory depth, and it called attention to the very nature of paint on canvas. It also brought a new, open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism. This led to her being credited with the development of painting best known as Color Field. Though working in a male dominated art field at the time, Frankenthaler garnered solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions and regularly received favorable reviews. In 1958 Frankenthaler married fellow Abstract Expressionist and Color Field artist, Robert Motherwell. Frankenthaler taught at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and NYU. Her works are in the collections of Guggenheim, Smithsonian, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Metropolitan, Israel Museum, Tate Modern, Hirshorn Museum, and many other world-renowned museums.