In 1952, the abstract painter was 23 years old when she painted Mountains and the Sea using a technique of her own invention that would pave the way for a new movement in art.
She was celebrated as a painter of instinct, which she obviously was, but she was also very calculating in what she did. The stress on the instinctive, while it was there, is also a gendered reading of her work—the idea that women are instinctive and men are intelligent. Helen Frankenthaler was both.
She didn’t want any discussion of her being a woman or about her personal life such as her marriage to Robert Motherwell. Her marriage to Motherwell in 1958 gave the couple an art-world aura. Like her, he came from a well-to-do family, and ‘the golden couple’ as they were known in the cash-poor art world of that time, spent several leisurely months honeymooning in Spain and France.
Frankenthaler was known as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who redefined a technique developed by Jackson Pollock of pouring pigment directly onto canvas laid on the floor. Critic Clement Greenberg called it Post-Painterly Abstraction. Where Pollock had used enamel that rested on raw canvas like skin, Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it.
Unlike many of her painter colleagues at the time, Helen who was born in New York City in 1928, came from a prosperous Manhattan family. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a Supreme Court Judge and Martha Lowenstein, an immigrant from Germany. Helen was so interested in art from an early age, she would dribble nail polish into a sink of water to watch the colour flow.
Although Frankenthaler rarely discussed the sources of her abstract imagery, it reflected her impression of landscape, her meditations, on personal experience and the pleasure of dealing with paint. Virtually diverse, her paintings were never produced in ‘serial’ themes like those of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors. She looked on each as a separate exploration.
‘There is no formula,’ she said in an interview in the New York Times, 2003. ‘There are no rules. Let the picture lead you to where it must go.’
Besides her paintings, Frankenthaler is known for her inventive lithographs, etchings and screen prints she produced since 1961.
Helen loved to entertain. She enjoyed feeding people and engaging in lively conversation. And, she liked to dance. You could see it in her movements as she worked on her paintings.
She never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970’s. ‘For me, being a lady painter was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.’
Critics have not unanimously praised Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in colour and too ‘poetic’. But it has been far more apt to garner admirers from critics who said she had a gift for spontaneity, freedom, openness and intimately tied to nature and human emotions.
Helen Frankenthaler died December, 2011, at 83 years old.