The Groundbreaking Abstraction of Helen Frankenthaler

by Ana Brdar

Helen Frankenthaler, one of the most prominent painters of the postwar period, mastered a distinct style of painting that left an indelible mark on the landscape of American contemporary art. Influenced by the artist of first-generation Abstract Expressionism such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Lee Krasner, Frankenthaler introduced her own technique that broke away from traditional abstraction and gave way to some of the most important art movements of the second half of the 20th century.

Helen Frankenthaler

Frankenthaler was born in 1928 in New York City into a wealthy, culturally progressive family. Her father was a respected New York State Supreme Court judge who encouraged all three daughters to pursue professional careers. Frankenthaler received her education at Dalton School and Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied under Paul Feeley who introduced her to pictorial composition and the visual language of Cubism. She graduated in 1949, after which she briefly moved to New Province, Massachusetts to study with the prominent Abstract Expressionist Hans Hoffman. In 1950, Frankenthaler returned to New York, where she began her professional career, working full-time as a painter. The same year, she met influential visual art and literary critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced her to some of the most renowned figures of the New York School, including Jackson Pollock, David Smith and Willem de Kooning. Frankenthaler’s first solo exhibition, which was set up in Manhattan’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery, followed in 1951. The following year proved to be pivotal for Frankenthaler – this is when she originated the painting that would set her apart from her contemporaries and remain her most significant work of art to this day. Mountains and Sea was painted after Frankenthaler retuned from a short trip to Nova Scotia, which might explain the faint allusions of natural forms that appear on it. Even though the massive size of the canvas (3 meters wide and 2 meters high) was something that was characteristic of the the New York School, Frankenthaler broke the boundaries by pioneering a new painting method. The “soak stain” technique, as she named it, involved diluting the oil paint with turpentine to a water color consistency, then pouring it out directly onto the unprimed canvas that had been laid out on the floor. The achieved effect was one of airy, translucent color washes that seamlessly blended into the canvas, erasing any hints of three-dimensional illusion. This groundbreaking piece established Frankenthaler as a defining force in the American art scene. Her rise also contributed to the movement that would later become known as Color Field painting, led by artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, both heavily inspired by Mountains and Sea. Frankenthaler’s later work was continuously marked with experimentation, both in terms of technique and medium. Most notable works in this period were her woodcuts, which embodied the same ephemeral effects and lyrical style that was distinctly present in her paintings.

Despite the fact that Frankenthaler’s canvases would eventually lose popularity due to the rise of Pop Art and Minimalism of the 1960s, her influence on the American contemporary art remains unquestionable. Through her work, she succeeded in opening doors for new expressions, or as Morris Louis once put it – her art represented ”a bridge between Pollock and what was possible”.

Featured image: Mountains and Sea by Helen Frankenthaler