Helen Frankenthaler
Biography of Abstract Expressionist, Founder of Colour Stain Painting.

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Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928)


Training and Early Career
Development of Style
Post-Painterly Abstraction

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An influential figure in American art of the late 1950s and early 60s, Helen Frankenthaler is a leading abstract expressionist painter, sculptor and printmaker. Impressed by the action-painting technique perfected by Jackson Pollock (1912-56), she employed similar methods in her painting Mountains and Sea (1952, National Gallery, Washington), which is considered a seminal work of Colour Stain Painting. Frankenthaler began exhibiting large scale works in the 1950s and was included in the important 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction Exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg (1909-94). Frankenthaler's innovative stain techniques influenced other artists in the way they thought about and employed colour in their own paintings. She is seen as a transitional figure between the first and second generation of Abstract Expressionism painters. (Compare, for instance, Mark Rothko's Paintings). The Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective for her in 1989, and her reputation continues to grow. Married to Robert Motherwell (1915-91) between 1958 and 1971, Frankenthaler works from her home in Darien, Connecticut.

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Training and Early Career

Frankenthaler was born in 1928 in New York. Her parents fostered her artistic gifts and enrolled her in progressive, experimental schools. At 15 she attended the Dalton School, originally called the Children's University School. There she studied art under Mexican painter and muralist Rufino Tamayo (1899–1991). At 16 she enrolled in Bennington College, Vermont, where she studied painting under Paul Feeley (1910-66). Feeley was instrumental in Bennington becoming a cultural outpost for the New York art world and he regularly organised exhibitions of Abstract Expressionism. In 1948 Frankenthaler moved back to New York and in 1950 she met the art critic Clement Greenberg at a Bennington alumnae exhibition. The two dated for the next 5 years and through this association she was introduced to prominent abstract painters such as Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Lee Krasner (1908-84), Franz Kline (1910-62) and Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Greenberg also encouraged her to study under Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). However it was Pollock that particularly impressed her, and she would take his drip painting technique to new levels, pouring very thinned paint onto canvas like washes or stains of watercolour.

Development of Style

1952 was a pivotal year for Frankenthaler. After a trip to Nova Scotia she painted her Mountains and Sea, pioneering her Colour Stain Painting technique. Working with a large canvas on the floor, the artist thinned her oil paints with turpentine and poured directly onto the canvas. Although it was oil paint, the effect was like watercolour. The unprepared canvas absorbed the colours, sometimes causing a halo effect. This technique, known as 'soak stain' was also used by Pollock. It particularly impressed Kenneth Noland (1924–2010) and Morris Louis (1912–1962) when they visited Frankenthaler's studio in 1955; and in doing so, helped launched a second generation of Colour Field painters - the original pioneers of Colour Field Painting being Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Barnett Newman (1905-70) in the 1940s and 50s. (Unfortunately the soak stain technique has proven a headache for art curators, as the oil in the paint comes into direct contact with untreated canvas, and eventually rots it.) Throughout the 1950s Frankenthaler continued to paint and exhibit, drawing inspiration from her love of landscape. In 1957 she married contemporary artist Robert Motherwell, a relationship which lasted 13 years and proved beneficial to both artists' creative development. (Note: Although seen as an important contemporary female artist, Frankenthaler was uninvolved in the feminist art movement that emerged in America during the late 1960s.)

Post-Painterly Abstraction

In 1962 Frankenthaler switched from oils to acrylic painting which allowed her to achieve better saturation in her colours. Her paints appear to almost float on the canvas, and are especially suited to landscape painting. She continued to exploit the stain technique working primarily with large-scale canvases. In 1964 she was invited to join the Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition organized by Greenberg, along with 30 other artists including Kenneth Noland, Paul Feeley, Frank Stella (b.1936), Mason Wells and Sam Francis (1923-94). As old-style abstract expressionist painting began to decline, the term "post-painterly abstraction" gained some ground in the 1960s. This encompassed abstract art movements such as Lyrical Abstraction, as well as various forms of Minimalism including Hard-Edge Painting.


Frankenthaler received her first major recognition in 1959 when she won first prize at the Paris Biennale. In 1966 she represented America at the Venice Biennale and in Montreal at the Expo 67. She also expanded her range of artistic mediums and materials at this time, to include printmaking, ceramics, aquatints, woodcuts and lithographs. In 1972 she created her first sculpture. In the 1980s Frankenthaler's paintings became somewhat somber and calmer in both mood and colour. In 2001 she received the National Medal of Arts and in 2003 the Skowhegan Medal for Painting. She is also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.




Today, Frankenthaler's paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums in America and all of the important collections of abstract paintings, including Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; MOMA, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

• For biographies of other artists associated with Post-Painterly Abstraction, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more details of non-objective painting, see: Homepage.

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