Helen Frankenthaler emerged out of the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, alongside other artists such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning. Yet while her distinctive body of work can be said to have had its origins in their gestural innovations, it is, at the same time, a uniquely individual and innovative approach to painting. She took her paintings to a new level by developing her so-called “soak-stain” technique—dripping, spattering and pouring her paint directly onto the unprimed canvas and allowing it to soak into the canvas.
The title, Pirouette, evokes a dramatic sense of movement which emanates off the surface of the canvas. This dynamism is the result of the strong separation between the warm, soft background hues and the robust marks in the foreground. These contour lines create dimension while the horizontal line evokes space. Much of Frankenthaler’s composition was determined by chance, “You have to know how to use the accident,” she once said “how to recognize it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once” (H. Frankenthaler in an interview with Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco, New York on 11 July 1994, Sound Reel 10, International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books Collection, National Gallery of Australia).
Pirouette is an example of Frankenthaler’s more mature work, stripped down and containing more simplified compositions. The color relationships are more reserved, toned down except for the more expressive pure white formations that stand out in an organic swaying movement in contrast with the muted pinks and greens. While there are contour lines that elude to form, all the elements merge together into an elegant dance of color and form. Her early work, such as Mountains and Sea or Eden, evoked more figurative landscapes but as she progressed she began using color to describe space, and paintings became more geometric and abstract. Pirouette was created among Frankenthaler’s later works, which represented a flatter space with varied languages and gestures. During this time she was focusing less on the subject observed and more on her own response and expressive delivery, which became a signature of her language.
Frankenthaler saw each painting as a journey and believed that a beautiful picture should look as if it was made all in a single moment. She created a sense of unity in her paintings by balancing visual elements such as color and shape and the overall atmosphere came from a dominant use of similar chromatic values. Frankenthaler pioneered the expressive action of stain painting, using thinned paints whilst dripping and dragging them over a canvas that she laid down over the floor. Her language and vocabulary celebrates a variety of qualities, suggestive of the pure joy of movement and gesture, and producing a triumphal expression of painterly choreography.