Helen Frankenthaler


Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928) was one of the most important living abstract artists in America. She is for her innovative technique of “stain painting” in which she used thinned paints on canvas, resulting in atmospheric floating veils of color reminiscent of a landscape. She first began to work in the medium of printmaking in 1961.  She has worked with master printers at print studios throughout the United States, using increasingly complex techniques in her work. This print, from an edition of 54 printed at Tyler Graphics, consists of 22 colors printed from 12 different copper plates.

Known as a second generation Abstract Expressionist, Helen Frankenthaler was a major figure in the development of color-field abstraction during the late 1950s and 60s.Helen Frankenthaler was born and raised in a wealthy Manhattan family with her two older sisters. Her parents fostered her talent from a young age, sending her to progressive, experimental schools. The family took many trips in the summertime and it was during these trips that Frankenthaler developed her love of the landscape, sea, and sky. Her father was a judge on the New York State Supreme Court and died of cancer when she was eleven years old. This affected her immensely, sending Helen into a four-year period of unhappiness during which time she suffered from intense migraines.

At fifteen Frankenthaler was sent to the Dalton school and began to study under the muralist Rufino Tamayo. By the time she was sixteen, she decided to become an artist, enrolling in Bennington College in Vermont where she studied under Paul Feeley, who was fundamental in arranging exhibitions of Abstract Expressionists.

1948, Frankenthaler moved back to New York. Two years later she met art critic Clement Greenberg at an exhibition she organized for Bennington alumnae. This meeting began a romantic relationship between the two that would last for the next five years, during which time Greenberg introduced her to prominent painters such as Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline. Greenberg also prompted Frankenthaler to study under Hans Hofmann in 1950. 1952 marked a pivotal moment for Frankenthaler. After a trip to Nova Scotia, she created Mountains and Sea, her first mature, influential work where she pioneered her soak-stain technique. Working on the floor on a large canvas, Frankenthaler thinned her oil paints with turpentine and used window wipers, sponges, and charcoal outlines to manipulate the resulting pools of pigment.

Greenberg took Morris Lewis and Kenneth Noland to Frankenthaler's studio to see Mountains and Sea, and it was their excitement over this piece that led to their experimentation with Frankenthaler's soak-stain technique and to their ultimate participation in the Color Field movement. In the years that followed, Frankenthaler continued to work using her new methods, drawing on her abiding love of the landscape to inspire her work.. Her unique approach influenced a generation of color field painters, including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Though primarily abstract, many of her paintings and prints have a lyrical, landscape quality, with hints of recognizable imagery.

1957, she met fellow artist Robert Motherwell, and the following year they began their 13-year marriage, marking a period of mutual influence in their artwork.

In the 1960s, Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paint in place of oil. Paintings like Canyon, show the large washes of bright color over the picture plane that were possible with new materials. In 1964, her work was included in an exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Greenberg titled the show, Post- Painterly Abstraction, identifying a new strain of painting born out of Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler also began to show internationally, exhibiting at the International Biennial of Art in Venice in 1966 and in the United States Pavilion at Expo in Montreal in 1967. She also began to hone her skills in alternate media at this time, and embraced printmaking, creating woodcuts, aquatints, and lithographs that rivaled her painting in craftsmanship.

Deep Sun, made in an edition of 54, was one of a number of prints that Frankenthaler made at Tyler Graphics in the 1980’s and 90’s. Having gained more experience in the printmaking medium, she began to use more complex techniques, combining several processes in one work. This print is made with the “intaglio” (meaning “to engrave, carve or cut”) printmaking methods of etching, drypoint, aquatint, engraving and mezzotint. It was made from 12 individual coppee plates with 22 separate colors.

After her divorce from Motherwell in 1971, Frankenthaler traveled West, as many artists had before her. Two mid- 1970s trips resulted in Desert Pass and several other works that reflected the color and tones of the Western landscape.

Frankenthaler passed away on December 27, 2011 but continued making art up until her death.  She experimented with a variety of media, including clay and steel sculpture, even designing the sets and costumes for England's Royal Ballet, but always found the greatest success in focusing on color and light. Frankenthaler lived in Manhattan and had a summer home in Darien, Connecticut where she enjoyed the sea and sky that inspired her in her youth.


Cross, Susan. The Emergence of a Painter in After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler

1956-1959 Guggenheim Museum/ Abrams, 1998.