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.
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
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.
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.
Composing with Color: Paintings 1962–1963
Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color: Paintings 1962–1963 is available for online reading from June 20 through July 19 as part of the From the Library series. This catalogue records a 2014 exhibition of eleven paintings made in a brief but critical period in Frankenthaler’s career when she “composed with color” rather than with line, producing for the first time the freer compositions that would come to exemplify her long and prolific career. An essay by Elizabeth A. T. Smith provides an in-depth examination of Frankenthaler’s development during this period, including her transition from oil to acrylic paint, and places these works within the context of American art in the early 1960s.
Helen Frankenthaler: Composing with Color: Paintings 1962–1963 (New York: Gagosian, 2014)
Tri-State Relief Fund
The Willem de Kooning Foundation, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Teiger Foundation, and the Cy Twombly Foundation, as part of their respective COVID-19 relief efforts, have established an emergency relief grant program that will provide $1,250,000 in aid to non-salaried visual arts workers in the tristate area who have experienced financial hardship from lack of income or opportunity as a direct result of the COVID-19 crisis. The program will be administered in partnership with nonprofit arts service organization New York Foundation for the Arts.
Tri-state area of the United States
Helen Frankenthaler Foundation
COVID-19 Relief Effort
In response to the catastrophic situation artists and art organizations face in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation has announced a $5 million commitment to relief funding over the next three years. Building on its commitment to supporting artists and art institutions, this multiyear initiative marks the Foundation’s largest commitment of funding to date in support of a single cause since it became active in 2013.
Helen Frankenthaler, M, 1977, collection of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Steven Sloman
Helen Frankenthaler in
The Fullness of Color: 1960s Painting
Through August 2, 2020
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
In the 1960s a group of avant-garde painters began to push abstraction in new directions, their attempts leading to the emergence of several divergent styles. Works in this presentation chart several of the varied and complex courses nonrepresentational art followed in the 1960s and into the 1970s. This exhibition reflects the museum’s historical engagement with this artistic period. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Canal, 1963 © 2020 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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
Helen Frankenthaler in
Women Take the Floor
Through May 3, 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.
Pollock to Herrera
Opened December 17, 2018
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Epic Abstraction: Pollock to Herrera explores large-scale abstract painting, sculpture, and assemblage, from the 1940s to the twenty-first century, through works from the Met collection and special loans. Many of the artists in the exhibition worked in large formats not only to explore aesthetic elements of line, color, shape, and texture, but also to activate scale’s metaphoric potential to evoke expansive—“epic”—ideas and subjects, including time, history, nature, and existential concerns of the self. Work by Helen Frankenthaler and Cy Twombly is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Western Dream, 1957, collection of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2018 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York