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. Heir of first-generation Abstract Expressionism, she brought together in her work—with prodigious inventiveness and singular beauty—a conception of the canvas as both a formalized field and an arena for gestural drawing. She was eminent among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and is widely credited for playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. One of the foremost colorists of our time, she produced a body of work whose impact on contemporary art has been profound.
Frankenthaler, daughter of New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler and his wife, Martha (Lowenstein) Frankenthaler, was born in December 1928, and raised in New York City. She attended the Dalton School, where she received her earliest art instruction from Rufino Tamayo. In 1949 she graduated from Bennington College, where she was a student of Paul Feeley, following which she went on to study briefly with Hans Hofmann.
Frankenthaler’s professional exhibition career began in 1950, when Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting Beach (1950) for inclusion in the exhibition titled 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 she was also included that year in the landmark exhibition 9th St. Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture. Renowned art critic Clement Greenberg recognized her originality, and her work soon went on to garner growing international attention. As early as 1959 she began to be a regular presence in major international exhibitions, and in 1960 she had her first museum retrospective, at the Jewish Museum, in New York.
In 1952 Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea, a seminal, breakthrough painting of American abstraction. Pioneering the “stain” painting technique, she worked by pouring 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. Thereafter, Frankenthaler remained a defining force in the development of American painting.
Throughout her long career, Frankenthaler experimented tirelessly, and, in addition to unique paintings on canvas and paper, she worked in a wide range of media, including ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and especially printmaking. Hers was a significant voice in the mid-century “print renaissance” among American abstract painters, and she is particularly renowned for her woodcuts. She continued working productively through the opening years of this century.
Frankenthaler’s distinguished and prolific career has been the subject of numerous monographic museum exhibitions, including—in addition to the 1960 Jewish Museum show—major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and European tour, in 1969; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and tour, in 1985 (works on paper); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, and tour, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1989; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and tour, in 1993 (prints); Naples Museum of Art, Florida, and tour, including the Yale University Art Gallery, in 2002 (woodcuts); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, traveled to the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, in 2003 (works on paper).
Recent major exhibitions have included Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner, presented by Turner Contemporary, Margate, England, in 2014, which featured works by Turner alongside twenty-four paintings by Frankenthaler; Giving Up One’s Mark: Helen Frankenthaler in the 1960s and 1970s, organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, in cooperation with the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation (2014–15); and Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler, which reconsidered the history of modern art and its renewed meaning for contemporary artists, presented by the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in 2015. Her work is regularly included in group exhibitions, with 2016 highlights including the Denver Art Museum’s Women of Abstract Expressionism; and Abstract Expressionism, organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Important works by Frankenthaler may be found in major museums worldwide. She was the recipient of numerous honorary doctorates, honors, and awards, including 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 (1974–2011), where she served as Vice-Chancellor in 1991; and was appointed an Honorary Academician of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2011.
Sea Change: A Decade of Paintings, 1974–1983
March 13–July 19, 2019
After Abstract Expressionism, 1959–1962
June 9–September 16, 2017
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
Painted on 21st Street
Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959
March 8–April 13, 2013
West 21st Street, New York
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.
Helen Frankenthaler: Line into Color, Color into line
To mark the occasion of the exhibition Line into Color, Color into Line: Helen Frankenthaler, Paintings, 1962–1987, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and Gagosian produced a video of rare archival footage of Frankenthaler on the subject of line and color.
After Frankenthaler: An Interview with Katy Siegel
Art historian Katy Siegel discusses her recent exhibition at the Rose Art Museum and publication “The heroine Paint”: After Frankenthaler with Gagosian’s Alison McDonald.
John Elderfield and Elizabeth Smith
John Elderfield and Elizabeth Smith discuss the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler on the occasion of Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color, Paintings 1962–1963.
Ruth E. Fine
Making Magic: Frankenthaler on Paper
Thursday, January 16, 2020, 5–7:30pm
Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Curator and author Ruth E. Fine will be giving a lecture on the occasion of the opening of Frankenthaler on Paper at the Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Fine will discuss Helen Frankenthaler’s print practice. During the 1960s and ’70s, several groundbreaking print workshops were established, reflecting a renewed interest on the part of artists and collectors in contemporary printmaking. Inspired by the process, Frankenthaler experimented endlessly, working with master printers across the country and abroad for more than three decades. The event is free to attend.
Helen Frankenthaler, Message from Degas, 1972–74 © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), West Islip, New York. Photo: Kevin Ryan
Monday, November 25, 2019, 6:30–8pm
Tate Modern, London
On the occasion of Helen Frankenthaler, a yearlong display of the artist’s work at Tate Modern, London, Clifford Ross, chairman of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, and art historian Briony Fer will discuss Frankenthaler’s life, work, and legacy. The talk will be chaired by Mark Godfrey, senior curator of international art at Tate Modern. The event has reached capacity.
Helen Frankenthaler, Vessel, 1961 © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This new podcast, produced by the Getty, explores the lives and work of six women artists spanning multiple generations. Hosted by curator Helen Molesworth, the podcast draws on rare audio interviews from the 1960s and ’70s from the archives of the Getty Research Institute and includes an episode on Helen Frankenthaler and another on Eva Hesse, including commentary by Mary Weatherford.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York, on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Closing this Week
Helen Frankenthaler in
Sparkling Amazons: Abstract Expressionist Women of the 9th St. Show
Through January 26, 2020
Katonah Museum of Art, New York
Sparkling Amazons presents the often-overlooked contribution by women artists to the Abstract Expressionist movement and the significant role they played as bold innovators within the New York School during the 1940s and ’50s. Through the presentation of some thirty works of art alongside documentary photography, the exhibition captures an important moment in the history of Abstract Expressionism. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mount Sinai, 1956, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Frankenthaler on Paper
Through March 29, 2020
Arthur Ross Gallery, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Helen Frankenthaler played a seminal role in both Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. This exhibition presents ten unique paintings on paper and fourteen prints that date from the 1970s to the 1990s. These rarely seen paintings on paper reflect Frankenthaler’s painterly process and were considered by the artist to be equal to her large-scale paintings.
Helen Frankenthaler, Fiesta, 1973 © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Through May 4, 2020
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through five thematic groupings, this exhibition seeks to rethink the stories that can be told with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s collection of contemporary art. The groupings address a range of topics, including artistic process, complex relationships between humans and the natural world, the body, materials, identity, and notions of utopia. Work by Georg Baselitz, Helen Frankenthaler, and Andy Warhol is included.
Installation view, Contemporary Art: Five Propositions, Museum of Fine Art, Boston, October 26, 2019–May 4, 2020
Through November 15, 2020
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