A line, color, shapes, spaces, all do one thing for and within themselves, and yet do something else, in relation to everything that is going on within the four sides [of the canvas]. A line is a line, but [also] is a color. . . . It does this here, but that there. The canvas surface is flat and yet the space extends for miles. What a lie, what trickery—how beautiful is the very idea of painting.
Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), whose career spanned six decades, has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. A member of the second generation of postwar American abstract painters, she is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. Through her invention of the soak-stain technique, she expanded the possibilities of abstraction, while at times referencing figuration and landscape in highly personal ways. She produced a body of work whose impact on contemporary art has been profound and continues to grow.
Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928, and raised in New York. She attended the Dalton School, where she received her earliest art instruction from Rufino Tamayo. In 1949 she graduated from Bennington College, Vermont, where she was a student of Paul Feeley, following which she studied briefly with Hans Hofmann.
Frankenthaler exhibited her work professionally for the first time in 1950, at the Kootz Gallery in New York, when Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting Beach (1950) for inclusion in Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. Her first solo exhibition was presented in 1951, at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and that year she was also included in the landmark 9th St. Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture in New York.
In 1952 Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea, her breakthrough soak-stain painting. She poured thinned paint directly onto raw, unprimed canvas laid on the studio floor, working from all sides to create floating fields of translucent color. Mountains and Sea was immediately influential for the artists who formed the Color Field school of painting, notable among them Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.
As early as 1959 Frankenthaler began to be a regular presence in major international exhibitions. That year she won first prize at the Première Biennale de Paris, and in 1966 she represented the United States at the 33rd Biennale di Venezia, alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jules Olitski. She had her first museum retrospective in 1960, at New York’s Jewish Museum, and her second in 1969, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, followed by an international tour. Additional museum retrospectives have been held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and touring venues (1985, works on paper); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and touring venues, including Museum of Modern Art, New York (1989, paintings); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and touring venues (1993, prints); Naples Museum of Art, Florida, and touring venues, including Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (2002, woodcuts); and Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, Florida, and touring venue, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, Scotland (2003, works on paper).
Throughout her long career, Frankenthaler experimented continuously. In addition to paintings on canvas and paper, she worked in a wide range of mediums, including ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and especially printmaking. Hers was a significant voice in the mid-century “print renaissance” among American abstract artists, and she is particularly known for her woodcuts, in which she layered numerous colors in a manner that expanded the possibilities of the medium.
In addition to numerous scholarly articles on her work by renowned art historians, curators, and critics, Frankenthaler has been the subject of three major monographs: Frankenthaler, by Barbara Rose (1972); Frankenthaler, by John Elderfield (1989); and Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonné, Prints 1961–1994, by Suzanne Boorsch and Pegram Harrison (1996).
In 2015 Gagosian published “The heroine Paint”: After Frankenthaler, a book of essays edited by art historian and curator Katy Siegel that explores Frankenthaler’s painting and expands its focus to include the immediate social and artistic context of her work, then traces artistic currents as they move outward in different directions in the ensuing decades.
Frankenthaler was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, honors, and awards. She received the National Medal of Arts in 2001; served on the National Council on the Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts from 1985 to 1992; was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 1974 to 2011, serving as Vice-Chancellor in 1991; and was appointed an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2011.
Important works by Frankenthaler are held in the collections of major museums worldwide.
A Sculpture and a Selection of Works on Paper
June 17–August 27, 2021
Davies Street, London
Extended through September 18, 2021
Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976
June 17–September 18, 2021
Grosvenor Hill, London
After Abstract Expressionism, 1959–1962
June 9–September 16, 2017
rue de Ponthieu, Paris
Line into Color, Color into Line
Helen Frankenthaler, Paintings, 1962–1987
September 16–October 29, 2016
Composing with Color: Paintings 1962–1963
September 11–October 18, 2014
980 Madison Avenue, New York
Helen Frankenthaler: A Painter’s Sculptures
On the occasion of four exhibitions in London exploring different aspects of Helen Frankenthaler’s work, Lauren Mahony introduces texts by the sculptor Anthony Caro and by the artist herself on her relatively unfamiliar first body of sculpture, made in the summer of 1972 in Caro’s London studio.
Augurs of Spring
As spring approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, Sydney Stutterheim reflects on the iconography and symbolism of the season in art both past and present.
Building a Legacy
The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation on COVID-19 Relief Funding
The Quarterly’s Alison McDonald speaks with Clifford Ross, Frederick J. Iseman, and Dr. Lise Motherwell, members of the board of directors of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director, about the foundation’s decision to establish a multiyear initiative dedicated to providing $5 million in covid-19 relief for artists and arts professionals.
Wyatt Allgeier pays homage to the renowned gallerist and artist Betty Parsons (1900–1982).
Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown
Lise Motherwell, a stepdaughter of Helen Frankenthaler and vice president of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Foundation, recently cocurated an exhibition of the artist’s work entitled Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown. Here they discuss the origin of the exhibition, the relationship between the artist’s work and her summers spent in Provincetown, and the presentations at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, in 2018, and the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, in 2019.
On the occasion of the exhibition Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992, at the Museo di Palazzo Grimani in Venice, Italy, art historians John Elderfield and Pepe Karmel discuss the concept of the panorama in relation to the artist’s work. Their conversation traces developments in Frankenthaler’s approach to composition, the boundaries and conventions of abstraction, and how, in many ways, her career continually challenged established theories of art history.
Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992
Pittura/Panorama: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992 marks the first time that Frankenthaler’s paintings have been exhibited in Venice since her inclusion in the 1966 Biennale as part of the US Pavilion. This video, including interviews with the show’s curator, John Elderfield; the chairman of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Clifford Ross; and the Foundation’s executive director, Elizabeth Smith, provides viewers with an in-depth look at the fourteen paintings included in the exhibition.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019
The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.
Helen Frankenthaler: Sea Change
Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and curator John Elderfield discuss a decade of Frankenthaler’s work on the occasion of her first exhibition of paintings in Rome.
Helen and High Water
John Elderfield shares part of his lecture, prepared on the occasion of the exhibition Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown.
Helen Frankenthaler at the Clark Art Institute
Phyllis Tuchman on the critical role of scale in Frankenthaler’s art practice.
John Elderfield and Lauren Mahony discuss Helen Frankenthaler and her work from 1959 to 1962.
Art Basel 2021
September 24–26, 2021, hall 2, booth C8
Gagosian is pleased to participate in Art Basel 2021 with modern and contemporary works by gallery artists, as well as several special entries in the Unlimited and Parcours sectors of the fair.
Gagosian’s booth in the main sector of the fair will feature works by Georg Baselitz, Glenn Brown, John Currin, Urs Fischer, Helen Frankenthaler, Titus Kaphar, Rick Lowe, Albert Oehlen, Sterling Ruby, and Mary Weatherford, among others. A selection of these works will also appear on gagosian.com and on Art Basel’s Online Viewing Room.
Gagosian’s booth at Art Basel 2021. Artwork, left to right: © Ed Ruscha, © Mark Tansey, © Glenn Brown, © Succession Picasso 2021, © Jenny Saville, © Albert Oehlen, © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, © Cy Twombly Foundation, © Mary Weatherford. Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano
Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne on Helen Frankenthaler
Wednesday, September 8, 2021, 1pm edt (6pm bst)
Join Gagosian for an online conversation between broadcaster and art historian Katy Hessel; Matthew Holman, associate lecturer in English at University College London; and Eleanor Nairne, curator at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, about the exhibition Imagining Landscapes: Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1976, on view at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill, London, through September 18. The trio will discuss Frankenthaler’s early training, the development of her signature soak-stain technique and subsequent shifts in style, and her connections to the London art world. To join, register at eventbrite.com.
Left: Katy Hessel. Photo: Luke Fullalove. Middle: Matthew Holman. Right: Eleanor Nairne. Photo: Max Colson
Frankenthaler Climate Initiative
Building on the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s social impact philanthropy, the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative is a multiyear grant-making program designed to advance the goal of carbon neutrality in the visual arts. In its inaugural cycle, the Foundation conferred its full initial commitment of more than $5 million to assist nearly eighty collecting institutions across more than twenty-five states in improving their energy efficiency. It has also dedicated an additional $5 million to be awarded over the next two years. For more information and a full list of 2021 grantees, visit frankenthalerclimateinitiative.org.
Helen Frankenthaler, Cool Summer, 1962 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever
Through November 2021
Tate Modern, London
Tate Modern presents five works by Helen Frankenthaler, ranging in date from 1951 to 1977, on loan from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York. The display marks the artist’s first extensive museum presentation in London since 1969.
Helen Frankenthaler, Europa, 1957 © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Helen Frankenthaler in
Women Take the Floor
Through November 28, 2021
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Women Take the Floor challenges the dominant history of twentieth-century American art by focusing on the overlooked and underrepresented work and stories of women artists. With more than two hundred works drawn primarily from the museum’s collection, the exhibition is organized into seven thematic galleries. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Floe IV, 1965, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Helen Frankenthaler, Abstraction, and the Language of Print
Through February 20, 2022
Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin
Without Limits celebrates the generous gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation to the Blanton Museum of Art of ten prints and six proofs that span five decades of the artist’s career. Frankenthaler began creating prints in 1961, approaching lithography, screen printing, etching, and woodcut printing with curiosity and vision. Collaborating with master printmakers at studios such as Universal Limited Art Editions (ulae), Mixografia, and Tyler Graphics, Ltd., she contributed to a printmaking renaissance in the mid-twentieth century. Her work is presented alongside prints by other artists in the Blanton’s collection who also use the medium to capture and translate their own abstract visions.
Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1967, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Gift of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Chiron Press, New York
Through April 18, 2022
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Radical Beauty presents Helen Frankenthaler’s groundbreaking woodcuts, which appear painterly and spontaneous with expanses of color and fluid forms. The exhibition reveals Frankenthaler as a trailblazer of the mid-century printmaking renaissance among American abstract artists, endlessly pushing the possibilities of the medium through experimentation. Highlights of the exhibition include East and Beyond (1973), created by printing onto multiple blocks to avoid negative space, and Cameo (1980), in which Frankenthaler introduced a new layered approach to color using her “guzzying” technique, where she worked surfaces with sandpaper and dental tools to achieve different effects.
Helen Frankenthaler, Cameo, 1980 © 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./DACS/Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York