Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) was an American painter and printmaker. She is associated with the Abstract Expressionists active in New York at mid-century: Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Robert Motherwell. Frankenthaler’s innovative style adapted Pollock’s technique of applying paint directly to raw canvas. However, her stain-like use of pigment placed her works in an ongoing negotiation between the extremes of Color Field painting and the gestural style of Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler’s works challenge traditional notions of representation, distinctions of figure and ground, and the use of negative space. In addition to works on canvas and paper, Frankenthaler’s later works cross media to include welded steel sculpture and theater design.
Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York in 1928. The daughter of New York Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler, Helen Frankenthaler grew up in a progressive atmosphere in which she was encouraged to pursue a career. Frankenthaler attended New York’s Dalton School where she studied with renowned Mexican colorist Rufino Tamayo. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Bennington College where she worked with Paul Feeley. The lingering influence of Cubism occupied her early work. After graduating in 1949, Frankenthaler returned to New York City where she entered the Abstract Expressionist circles of Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko.
Influenced by Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler briefly studied with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1950. During her time there, she turned to depictions of landscape. Frankenthaler was also influenced by the vast, open views of sea and earth that she encountered in Maine while visiting her family. This led to the opening of space and an embracing of the flatness of the canvas that came to define her mature style.
Frankenthaler adopted Pollock’s technique of placing the unprimed canvas on the ground. However, she departed from his gestural style by thinning oil paints to the consistency of watercolor and pouring them over the canvas, letting the thin solution stain the support. Frankenthaler’s concern for compositional balance and her incorporation of negative space often place her within the ranks of other Color Field artists. Yet, her subtle suggestions of depth and representational elements complicate such a facile reading.
It did not take long for Frankenthaler to gain recognition for her unique style, even within the male-dominated milieu of Abstract Expressionism. Her first solo exhibition was held at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City in 1951. Frankenthaler was also included in Young America 1957: Thirty American Painters and Sculptors under Thirty-Five, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Later that year she was included in an article featuring young artists published in Time and another on rising women artists in Life. Frankenthaler married fellow abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell in 1958. In 1959, Frankenthaler was included in three major international venues: Documenta II, Kassel, West Germany; the fifth Biennial of São Paulo, held at the Museo de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, Brazil; and the Première Biennale de Paris, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, winning first prize for her work entitled Jacob’s Ladder. The Jewish Museum in New York held Frankenthaler’s first retrospective exhibition in 1960.
In addition to international acclaim, Frankenthaler received a plethora of awards during her lifetime including the New York City Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture and the Jerusalem Prize for Arts and Letters. In 1994 she received the Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement. Frankenthaler also taught at major American universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and New York University.
Frankenthaler died in 2011 in Connecticut.
2008 – “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” The Jewish Museum, New York, New York
2007 – Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery, Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont (solo)
2005/06 – National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia (solo)
2003 – Museum of Contemporary, North Miami, Florida (solo)
2002 – Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (solo)
2000 – “Pasted Pictures: Collage and Abstraction in the 20th Century,” Knoedler and Company, New York, New York
1999 – Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York, Purchase, New York (solo)
1998 – Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY (solo)
1998 – Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA (solo)
1995 – “Helen Frankenthaler: New Work,” Knoedler and Company, New York, New York
1993 – National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (solo)
1989 – “Frankenthaler: A Painting Retrospective,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
1989 – The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, Texas (solo)
1987 – “Helen Frankenthaler: Prints 1985-1987,” Louvre, Venice, California
1985 – Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York (solo)
1983 – “Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings from 1959-1963,” Knoedler Gallery, London, United Kingdom
1981 – Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (solo)
1977/78 – “Guiding Red,” World Trade Center II, New York, New York
1975 – “Helen Frankenthaler: Ceramic Tiles, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
1975 – Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (solo)
1973 – “Helen Frankenthaler: Sixty-Two Painted Book Covers,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
1972 – “Helen Frankenthaler: A Retrospective of Prints, 1961-1972,” John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California
1969 – Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
1964 – Post-Painterly Abstraction, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
1961 – Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles, California
1961 – “American Abstract Expressionists and Imagists,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
1960 – The Jewish Museum, New York, New York (solo)
1958 – “Nature in Abstraction: The Relation of Abstract Painting and Sculpture to Nature in Twentieth-Century American Art,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
1959 – “U.S. Representation,” Sao Paulo, Brazil
1957 – “Artists of the New York School Second Generation,” The Jewish Museum, New York, New York
1955 – “Vanguard 1955: A Painter’s Selection of New American Paintings,” The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
1951 – “9th Street: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture,” 60th East 9th Street, New York, New York
1951 – Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, New York
The Wall Street Journal – “Pushing Past Abstraction” by Eric Gibson
The New York Times – “A Young Colorist, Antennas Aquiver” by Roberta Smith
Youtube – “Helen Frankenthaler: Exerpt from Painters Painting” from Connor Creagan
Amazon.com – “Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 – 1959” by John Elderfield