Helen Frankenthaler life and biography

Helen Frankenthaler picture, image, poster

Helen Frankenthaler biography

Date of birth : 1928-12-12
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-07-27
Credited as : Artist, Abstract Expressionist Painter, see "Flirt" by Helen in the left picture

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Helen Frankenthaler, also known as Mrs. Robert Motherwell, born December 12, 1928 in New York, New York is an American artist and Abstract Expressionist painter.

"What concerns me when I work is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it's pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is--did I make a beautiful picture?" This quote does not come from an Impressionist famed for their gemutlichkeit and soft focus, nor did it come from the Norman Rockwell school of illustrative art. Instead, these are the words of abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler, speaking with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine. The words "beautiful" and "abstract expressionist" do not usually fit together in the same sentence, but for colorist Frankenthaler, beauty is part of the innovative nature of her particular brand of abstract art.

Dubbed "America's best-known living woman artist" by Time magazine contributor Robert Hughes, Frankenthaler has been active since the early 1950s, creating hundreds of works in a dizzying array of genres, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics, book illustration, set and costume design, drawings, and bronze screens. Yet it is her large-scale canvas paintings for which she became famous and has remained so. One of her earliest works, Mountains and Sea, from 1952, became a seminal work in twentieth-century art, provoking, as Hughes noted, "American color-field painting in the '50s and '60s." A "complicated" and "original" artist, as Hughes further described her, Frankenthaler has had major retrospectives at America's most respected museums, creates works that sell for prices in the six figures, and continues to grow creatively and produce new works while many of her contemporaries in the abstract expressionist movement have either died or become forgotten or both. Her early work was and remains highly praised by critics. Karen Wilkin, reviewing an exhibition of Frankenthaler's work from the 1950s at New York's Guggenheim Museum in the New Criterion, lauded Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea for translating "the immediacy, fluidity, and luminosity of watercolor into the scale and intensity of oil on canvas." With this painting, Wilkin noted, Frankenthaler "gave herself (and as it turned out, a fair number of other people) a new syntax of painting." Wilkin described Frankenthaler's other paintings in the same medium as "urgent, passionate pictures, vivid evidence of the power of informed intuition, amalgams of Cubist fundamentals, biomorphic abstraction, fragmented recollections, and direct observation."

Frankenthaler's work of the 1990s earned similar critical acclaim. Robert G. Edelman, writing in Art in America about a 1996 show, noted that Frankenthaler "has reached that enviable stage as an artist where spontaneity and intuition are in complete alignment with control and a mastery of materials." For Edelman, "if there is a fault to be found with her current work, it would be that these painting somehow look too easily realized. Then again, Frankenthaler has spent a lifetime making the process look easy, which in her case should not be confused with a facile technique." Edelman concluded that "the pleasure of an exhibition like this one resides in recognizing the mature artist who no longer has anything to prove, but who still manages to create sincere and evocative work."

A "Privileged Household"

Born in New York in 1928, Frankenthaler grew up in what she described to Solomon as a "privileged household." Her father was a justice on the New York Supreme Court who doted on his young daughter, encouraging her early artistic ambitions. As a nine year old she won honorable mention in a drawing contest and as a reward her father took her to Tiffany's to buy her a gold charm shaped like a palette. Although her father died when she was eleven years old, his encouragement helped to shape Frankenthaler's life and career. As a senior in high school she took lessons from Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, and then went on to further studies with cubist painter Paul Feeley while a student at Vermont's Bennington College. The result of such tutelage was a strong neo-cubist style.

After graduation, Frankenthaler returned to New York City, where she rented a studio and began to paint in earnest. Her cubist sensibilities are demonstrated in some of her earliest paintings, exhibited at a benefit exhibition for Bennington alumnae. Present at this exhibition in 1950 was influential art critic Clement Greenberg, who helped to build the reputation of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock.

Frankenthaler and Greenberg became a couple for the next five years, their relationship with art their joint focus as they attended exhibitions and traveled in Europe in search of art both contemporary and classical. Greenberg arranged for Frankenthaler's first solo show at New York's Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951. As a young painter fresh out of college, Frankenthaler created paintings that "are marked not only audacity and ambition . . . but also by pure ability," according to a contributor for Contemporary Artists. Additionally, Greenberg brought Frankenthaler into contact with the circle of abstract expressionists of the New York School, such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Pollock. Seeing Pollock's work with its famed drip technique--applying the paint to canvasses in a drip rather than a sweep of the brush--for the first time was a revelation for Frankenthaler. "I was in awe of it," she told Solomon, "and I wanted to get at why."

Mountains and Sea and Beyond

Up to this time, Frankenthaler had continued her neo-cubist style. However, she responded to Pollock's art with her own innovation, thinning her pigment and soak-staining it directly onto untreated canvas. The result was a watercolor wash effect that emphasized color rather than line, the characteristic she admired in Pollock's work. As Carter Ratcliff noted in a Vogue magazine interview with the artist, Frankenthaler "had not simply adopted Pollock's paint-pouring method." Instead, as Ratcliff further pointed out, "she had reinvented it for her own purposes, making it less the product of a violent choreography and thus more responsive to suggestions about atmosphere."

Returning from a 1952 vacation to Nova Scotia, Frankenthaler used her new technique to create Mountains and Sea, a work which, as Wilkin described, "with its luminous hues, diaphanous shapes, and detached fragments of line, has become a kind of icon, regarded as the Urtext of stain painting." The painting, after a half century, "continues to look astonishingly fresh, bold and inventive," according to Wilkin. For Arthur C. Danto, writing in the Nation, Mountains and Sea is "as beautiful as painting gets." One day, while Frankenthaler was away from her studio, Greenberg let two fellow painters, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, into her studio to see the work, and they were as struck with it as Greenberg. The two began experimenting with their own brand of soak-staining, and out of this was born the phenomenon of color-field painting. At age twenty-four, the talented Frankenthaler had already influenced the course of modern painting.

Throughout the 1950s Frankenthaler continued to produce a body of "original, adventurous work that still forms the bedrock of her formidable international reputation," as Wilkin further commented. This work, as Wilkin described, "made drawing and painting into a single activity, soaking thinned-out pigment into the canvas as both line and plane at the same time. It seemed as though [Frankenthaler's] drawing gesture had somehow expanded effortlessly into sheets of radiant color." Other important works from the 1950s are Jacob's Ladder, Interior, Seven Types of Ambiguity, and New York Bamboo, almost all of which are noted for their strong color and wash effect.

Capturing Emotion through Color

Working as an abstractionist thereafter, Frankenthaler increasingly attempted to capture emotional states by the use of color rather than by employing subject or forms. As the 1950s spun into the 1960s and 1970s, she "gradually abandoned allusion for a no less moving, but more painterly and less specific kind of radiant color painting," according to the Contemporary Artists essayist. Such works "are distinguished by pools and flows of transparent color which paradoxically seem both to have their own shape and to have been manipulated by a very specific individual." This same critic further noted that "since the mid-'70s Frankenthaler's paintings have become denser and even lusher," employing broad sweeps of layered color.

Frankenthaler, who married abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell in 1958--the marriage ended in divorce thirteen years later--has also experimented with a variety of art forms, including printmaking and woodcuts. Her 1974 woodcut, Savage Breeze, is one of the better examples of her work in this genre. But her most important work has continued to be her large oil canvasses. Susan Reed, writing in People, described the Frankenthaler technique: "When she starts to paint, she shoos her assistant outside and lays 16-foot stretched canvases on the floor. Wearing an apron or white coat, she pours the paint with intense care, manipulating the fluid colors with house brushes, mops and squeegees."

Writing in the New Leader on a 1989 retrospective exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Bradley W. Bloch noted that in reviewing Frankenthaler's "output over the last four decades, it is evident that her achievement has been largely technical, affording an array of new approaches to the uses of color that are interesting but ultimately of limited resonance. Only during the '70s and very early '80s does she seem to have harnessed her formidable skin to a mature vision." However, Nation contributor Danto, reviewing the same retrospective exhibit, found that the artist's oeuvre up to 1976 is praiseworthy. "As a visual narrative of Frankenthaler's artistic life unfolds through work after work of the same order of beauty as Mountains and Sea but more confident, less diffident and increasingly tasteful," wrote Danto, "one realizes that their collective aesthetic is more that of drawing than of painting in oils." Danto, though, felt the artist's work since the mid-1970s has drastically altered. "Frankenthaler begins to use white opaquely, as paint, and her surfaces, in losing transparency, visibly deaden." Danto went on to note that "since the paint is used opaquely, the canvas no longer breathes through it. It is scraped rather than floated on. The forms have lost their fluid, dilating vitality. Space becomes illusionistic, and the edges are not longer available for her forms." It has been a characteristic of Frankenthaler's work that her paintings continue to elicit strong and sometimes contrary opinions.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Frankenthaler continued to explore different art forms, even working in sculpture and set design. The fields of color in her paintings took on a new painterly, stroked texture, becoming large swaths of vibrant hues that contrast one with the other. She achieved a similar feel in her woodcuts, such as the large-scale triptych Madame Butterfly in which the artist blends over one hundred colors on specially made paper.

Frankenthaler, who remarried in 1994, lives a life atypical for most artists: she resides in an attractive and expensive apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, speaks of art in terms of beauty, and has earned a reputation as a renowned hostess. In fact, as Solomon noted in the New York Times Magazine, "Frankenthaler seems almost old-fashioned in the purity of her convictions. And that truth is that she is old-fashioned. The mood of high seriousness that surrounded the art scene when she first started out has since given way to the frivolous ironies of post-modernism. The world has changed, but her work has not." Speaking with Reed, Frankenthaler concluded, "I think people are very threatened by the word beauty today. In some circles the word implies schmaltzy and passe. But the darkest Rembrandts and Goyas, the most somber music of Beethoven, the most tragic poems of Eliot are all full of light and beauty. Great, moving art that speaks the truth is beautiful art."


Born December 12, 1928, in New York, NY; daughter of Alfred (a justice of the New York Supreme Court) and Martha (Lowenstein) Frankenthaler; married Robert Motherwell (a painter), April 6, 1958 (divorced, 1971); married Stephen Dubruel, 1994. Education: Attended Dalton School (New York, NY); studied with Vaclav Vytlacil at Art Students League, 1946; studied with Wallace Harrison, 1948, and Hans Hofmann, 1950; Bennington College, B.A. 1949.


First Prize, Biennale, Paris, 1959; Gold Medal, International Graphics Biennale (Catania, Italy), 1972; Garrett Award, Art Institute of Chicago, 1972; National Conference of Christians and Jews Award, 1978; Bennington College Alumni Award, 1979; New York City Mayor's Award of Honor, 1986. Connecticut Arts Award, 1989; Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association, 1994; Lotus Club Medal of Merit, 1994; Artist of the Year Award, Art Resources in Teaching, 1995. Honorary degrees include D.H.L. from Skidmore College, 1969; D.F.A. from Smith College, 1973, and honorary degrees from Moore College of Art, 1974, Bard College, 1976, Radcliffe College, 1978, Amherst College, 1979, New York University, 1979, Harvard University, 1980, Philadelphia College of Art, 1980, Williams College, 1980, Yale University, 1981, Brandeis University, 1982, University of Hartford, 1983, Syracuse University, 1985, Marymount Manhattan College, 1989, George Washington University, 1992, Dartmouth College, 1994, City University of New York, 1995, and Rhode Island School of Design, 1996.


Painter, beginning 1950. Major works include Tangerine, 1946, Mountains and Sea, 1952, Round Trip, 1957, Jacob's Ladder, 1957, Interior, 1957, Swan Lake I, 1961, Human Edge, 1967, Blue Rail, 1969, Hint from Bassano, 1971, Savage Breeze, 1974, Viewpoint II, 1979, For E. M., 1981, Tales of Genji, 1998, and Madame Butterfly, 2000. Painting instructor at New York University, 1958-59; Yale University, 1962; Princeton University, 1970; Hunter College, 1970; University of Rochester, 1971; Bennington College, 1972; Brooklyn Museum Art School, 1973; Swarthmore College, 1974; Drew University, Madison, NJ, 1975; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 1977; University of Arizona, Tucson, 1978; Art Institute of Chicago, 1983; and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, 1986. Trustee, Bennington College, 1967-82; fellow of Calhoun College, Yale University, since 1968. Member, Corporation of Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1974-78; and National Council on the Arts, 1985. Exhibitions: Individual exhibitions include Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, NY, annually, 1951-58; Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York, NY, 1959, 1961-62, 1965-66, 1968-73, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981-82, 1984, 1986, 1990-91, 1993; Jewish Museum, New York, NY, 1961; Everett Ellin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA, 1961; Galerie Lawrence, Paris, France, 1961; Neufville Galerie, Paris, 1961; Galleria dell'Ariete, Milan, Italy, 1962; Bennington College, 1962, 1978; Kasmin Gallery, London, England, 1964; David Mirvish Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1965, 1971, 1973, 1975; Windham College, Putney, VT, 1966; Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles, 1967; Gertrude Kasle Gallery, Detroit, MI, 1967; Whitney Museum, New York, NY (retrospective), 1969; Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1969; Kongress-Halle, Berlin, West Germany, 1969; Kunstverein, Hanover, West Germany, 1969; Heath Gallery, Atlanta, GA, 1971; Galerie Godard Lefort, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1971; Fendrick Gallery, Washington, DC, 1972; John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, CA (print retrospective), 1972; Portland Art Museum, OR, 1972; Waddington Gallery, London, 1973, 1975; Janie C. Lee Gallery, Dallas, TX, 1973; Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973; Galerie Emmerich, Zurich, Switzerland, 1974; Corcoran Gallery, Washington, DC (retrospective), 1975; Guggenheim Museum, 1975, 1985, 1998; ACE Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, 1975; Rosa Esman Gallery, New York, NY, 1975; Diane Gilson Gallery, Seattle, WA, 1976; Janie C. Lee Gallery, Houston, TX, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982; Greenberg Gallery, St. Louis, MO, 1977; Jacksonville Art Museum, FL, 1977; Galerie Wentzel, Hamburg, West Germany, 1977; Knoedler Gallery, London, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1986; International Communications Agency, world tour (retrospective), 1978; Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, MO, 1978; John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, 1979, 1982, 1986-87; Fendrick Gallery, Washington, DC, 1979; Saginaw Art Museum, MI, 1980; Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 1980; Thomas Segal Gallery, Boston, MA, 1981; Toledo Museum of Art, OH, 1981; Getler/Pall Gallery, New York, NY, 1982; Rosa Esman Gallery, New York, NY, 1983, 1991; Gallery One, Toronto, 1983, 1993; Dana Reich Gallery, San Francisco, 1983; Katonah Gallery, New York, NY, 1984; Museum of Modern Art, 1989; Kukje Gallery, Seoul, Korea, 1991; Associated American Artists, New York, NY, 1992; Knoedler and Co., New York, NY, 1992, 1994; Meredith Long and Company, Houston, 1993; The Century Association, New York, NY, 1993; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1993; Long Fine Art, New York, NY, 1993; Meredith Long, Houston, 1994; Naples Museum of Art, Naples, FL, 2002-03; and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, FL, 2003. Group exhibitions include Abstract Expressionist and Imagists, Guggenheim Museum, 1961; American Artists of the 1960s, Boston University, 1970; The Structure of Color, Whitney Museum, 1971; Abbott/Frankenthaler/Grossman/Nevelson, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, 1974; Two Decades of American Abstraction, University of Tampa, 1978; Woman: Artist and Image, Columbus Museum of Art, OH, 1980; The American Artist as Printmaker, Brooklyn Museum, 1983; After Matisse, Queens Museum, Flushing, NY, 1986; The Unique Print, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1990; and The New York School: Five Decades of Abstraction, Gallery One, Toronto, 1994. Work included in permanent collections at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Guggenheim Museum, and National Gallery of Art.

* Writings

* 1980: Helen Frankenthaler Prints, 1961-1979, Icon (New York, NY).
* 1987: Prints, 1985-1987, Tyler Graphics Ltd. (Mount Kisco, NY).
* 1990: Frankenthaler: Santa Fe Series: Pastels and Other Works on Paper, Gerald Peters Gallery (Santa Fe, NM).
* 1995: (With Karen Wilkin) Frankenthaler: Works on Paper 1949-1984, George Braziller (New York, NY).
* 1995: Reflections, Tyler Graphics Ltd. (Mount Kisco, NY).
* 1996: Valentine for Mr. Wonderful, Rizzoli International (New York, NY).
* 1997: Frankenthaler: Paintings and Works on Paper (exhibition catalog), Tasende Gallery (Los Angeles, CA).
* 2003: (With Susan Cross) After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York, NY).

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