Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was an American artist who acted as a bridge between the movements of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting after World War II. In a career spanning six decades, she produced a plethora of lyrical, formally inventive, abstract paintings. ‘Art is supposed to give pleasure,’ she said. ‘When you knock pleasure, then the meaning of art is gone out the window.’

Frankenthaler was born in New York in 1928. She studied under Paul Feeley at Bennington College in Vermont and had her first solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in her home city in 1951.

A year later she painted her most famous picture, Mountains and Sea, inspired by the hills, rocks and coastline she had seen on a recent trip to Nova Scotia. It was executed in a technique known as ‘soak-stain’, which would become Frankenthaler’s trademark. This entailed pouring diluted paints onto an unprimed canvas she had laid on the floor — and manipulating them using squeegees, sponges and mops until they soaked into the fabric. Only occasionally did she use brushes.

Frankenthaler’s practice was influenced by that of her friend, Jackson Pollock. However, where his imagery was rooted in emotion and a gestural application of paint, hers tended to be light in touch and diaphanous, featuring soft-edged passages of soothing colour.

In 1958, she married the Abstract Expressionist painter and theoretician, Robert Motherwell. They became something of a ‘power couple’ on New York’s cultural scene — until their divorce 13 years later.

Of the evolution of her art over her career, Frankenthaler said ‘You want to do something within your own aesthetic, but also something that is going to surprise you.’

In the 1960s, her paintings grew more imposing, often featuring just four or five large clumps of colour. In the 1980s, they grew more baroque and were compared by some to underwater scenes.

Alongside her paintings, Frankenthaler developed a reputation as an impressive printmaker too: for her lithographs, her etchings and, above all, her woodcuts.

In 1989–1990, she received a major retrospective, which toured from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Frankenthaler was awarded the National Medal of Arts from the US government in 2001. She died ten years later.


Wind Directions, from Four Pochoirs

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

(Bach’s) Sacred Theater


The First of the Year

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Arriving in Africa

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

The Road to Messina

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Shippan Pt.: July, II

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Horoscope (for K.B.)