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.
Extended through March 26, 2022
January 18–March 26, 2022
rue de Castiglione, Paris
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
The Romance of a New Medium: Helen Frankenthaler and the Art of Collaboration
Inspired by the recent retrospective of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, William Davie writes about the artist’s innovative journey with printmaking. Davie illuminates Frankenthaler’s formative collaborations with master printers Tatyana Grosman and Kenneth Tyler.
Katy Hessel, Matthew Holman, and Eleanor Nairne on Helen Frankenthaler
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, discuss Helen 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.
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.
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2021
The Summer 2021 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Carrie Mae Weems’s The Louvre (2006) on its cover.
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.
Art Basel Miami Beach 2022
December 1–3, 2022, Booth D5
Miami Beach Convention Center
Gagosian is pleased to present a selection of modern and contemporary works at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Returning to Miami for the fair’s twentieth anniversary, the gallery is honored to have participated each year the fair has been held.
Gagosian’s booth at Art Basel Miami Beach 2022. Artwork, left to right: © Gerhard Richter; © Amoako Boafo; © Richard Prince; © 2022 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Richard Diebenkorn Foundation; © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano
Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1988–2009
Wednesday, September 28, 2022, 5–7pm
Gagosian Shop, New York
Douglas Dreishpoon will sign copies of the book Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1988–2009 at the Gagosian Shop, New York, to celebrate its recent publication. The first title to explore the late period of Frankenthaler’s art and life, the book features a new essay by Dreishpoon, director of the Helen Frankenthaler catalogue raisonné project and chief curator emeritus at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, New York. It accompanies the first major exhibition of Frankenthaler’s late work, curated by Dreishpoon for the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut, in 2021, and on view at the Baker Museum, Naples, Florida, through November 2022. Published by Radius Books in conjunction with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, the volume will be available for purchase at the event.
Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1988–2009 (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Radius Books in conjunction with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, 2022)
Zona Maco 2022
February 9–13, 2022, booth B115
Centro Citibanamex, Mexico City
Gagosian is pleased to announce its return to Zona Maco México Arte Contemporáneo for the first time since 2018; significantly, this is also the gallery’s first in-person art fair of 2022. Gagosian is presenting a specially curated selection of dynamic paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by iconic figures long associated with the gallery, juxtaposed with works by key contemporary artists. Many of the featured artists are being represented at Zona Maco for the first time.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (November), 2020 (detail) © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.
Through March 5, 2023
Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany
This exhibition, whose title translates to Painterly Constellations, is the first monographic show of Helen Frankenthaler’s work in Germany in more than twenty years. It features seventy-five works on paper alongside a selection of paintings from distinct phases in Frankenthaler’s career. These range in size from intimate to monumental; some reference landscape, while others are resolutely abstract. This exhibition has traveled from Kunsthalle Krems, Krems an der Donau, Austria.
Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1994 © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Through January 8, 2023
Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago
Revisiting classic modernist ideas about flatness, idealized form, and colors, this exhibition opens up the seemingly reductive format of the monochrome to reveal its global resonance and creative possibilities while working toward a more expansive narrative of twentieth and twenty-first century art. Work by Alexander Calder, Walter De Maria, Helen Frankenthaler, Theaster Gates, Frank Gehry, Sally Mann, and Richard Serra is included.
Sally Mann, The Bath, 1989 © Sally Mann
Ways of Freedom
Jackson Pollock to Maria Lassnig
Through January 22, 2023
Albertina Modern, Vienna
Ways of Freedom examines the creative interplay between Abstract Expressionism and Art Informel in a transatlantic exchange and dialogue from the mid-1940s to the end of the Cold War. Exploring radically impulsive approaches to form, color, and material, the exhibition includes more than ninety works by nearly fifty artists with loans from museums worldwide. This exhibition has traveled from the Museum Barberini in Potsdam, Germany under the title The Shape of Freedom: International Abstraction after 1945. Work by Willem de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and Simon Hantaï is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Beach Scene, 1961, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Late Works, 1990–2003
Through February 5, 2023
Baker Museum, Naples, Florida
Marking the first museum presentation exclusively dedicated to the late work of Helen Frankenthaler, this exhibition features ten paintings and twenty works on paper dating from 1990 to 2003, some measuring more than six feet in length. Through her invention of the soak-stain technique, Frankenthaler expanded the possibilities of abstract painting while referencing figuration and landscape in unique ways. In later years, her practice continued to evolve through her use of diverse media and processes, as she shifted from painting canvas on the floor to using larger sheets of paper laid out on the floor or on tabletops for easier accessibility. The continuity, in terms of content and execution between the late work (post-1990) and what came before it, is striking. Graced with memorable encounters, a vast art-historical image bank, and technical prowess, the aging artist moved in whatever direction suited her mood and imagination. This exhibition originated at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.
Installation view, Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1990–2003, Baker Museum, Naples, Florida, September 6, 2022–February 5, 2023. Artwork © 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: RoseBudz Productions, courtesy Baker Museum, Naples, Florida