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.
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.
A Vital Legacy
September 19–20, 2019
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
A series of conversations among artists and art historians on the impact of mid-twentieth-century abstraction will take place in conjunction with Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity, currently on view at the Princeton University Art Museum. The talks will begin at 5:30pm on Thursday, September 19, and continue at 9am on Friday, September 20. The events are free and open to the public.
Helen Frankenthaler, Deep Sun, 1983, Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics Ltd., Bedford Village, New York
Alexander Nemerov and Clifford Ross on Helen Frankenthaler
Friday, August 23, 2019, 6–8pm
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York
Art historian Alexander Nemerov, who is currently working on a new book about Helen Frankenthaler, will speak with Clifford Ross, chairman of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The pair will discuss Nemerov’s forthcoming publication as well as the exhibition currently on view at the Parrish Art Museum, Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown. To attend the event, purchase tickets at parrishart.org.
Helen Frankenthaler, Summer Picture, 1959, collection of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tim Pyle
on Helen Frankenthaler
Saturday, June 29, 2019, 5pm
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
On the occasion of the opening of the exhibition Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity at the Princeton University Art Museum, Carol Armstrong, professor of the history of art at Yale University, will explore Helen Frankenthaler’s accomplishments in prints with a lecture titled “Painting Printing Frankenthaler: The Process of Abstraction.” A reception in the museum will follow. The event is free and open to the public.
Helen Frankenthaler, Tales of Genji III, 1998 © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York
Closing this Week
Helen Frankenthaler Prints
Seven Types of Ambiguity
Through October 20, 2019
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
This exhibition celebrates the gift of ten prints and five related proofs from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation to the Princeton University Art Museum. Spanning five decades and more than a dozen distinct technical processes, these works represent the generative role of printmaking in Helen Frankenthaler’s oeuvre. Approximately fifty exhibited works explore Frankenthaler’s compositional language, working process, collaborations, evocations of place, and historical referents, revealing the vitality of the artist’s work in prints throughout her career.
Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000 © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Tyler Graphics, Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York
Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown
Through October 27, 2019
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York
In 1950, at the encouragement of art critic Clement Greenberg, Helen Frankenthaler studied briefly in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Hans Hofmann. Following her marriage to Robert Motherwell in 1958, she spent more than a decade of summers living and working there. Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown presents key examples of Frankenthaler’s work, beginning with those made the first summer the artist spent at Hofmann’s studio school and going on to focus on the period from the late 1950s through 1969. It also features photographs, letters, and memorabilia that shed light on the artist’s process, with an emphasis on the meaning of the place and its impact on her development as a painter. This exhibition has traveled from the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in Massachusetts.
Helen Frankenthaler, Breakwater, 1963 © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952–1992
Through November 17, 2019
Museo di Palazzo Grimani, Venice
Curated by John Elderfield, Pittura/Panorama features fourteen paintings covering a forty-year span of Helen Frankenthaler’s career. The exhibition focuses on the artist’s development of the pittura (painting) and the panorama: the interplay between works like easel paintings, although made on the floor, and large, horizontal paintings that open onto shallow but expansive spaces, in the way that panoramas do. This exhibition is organized by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and Venetian Heritage, in association with Gagosian.
Helen Frankenthaler, New Paths, 1973, collection of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Helen Frankenthaler in
Color Fields: 1960s Bennington Modernism
Through December 30, 2019
Bennington Museum, Vermont
During the 1960s, Bennington College served as a rural epicenter for a group of artists who were pushing the possibilities of abstraction in pared-down, color-based works that have come to be known collectively as Color Field painting. This exhibition looks at this critical moment when these artists led the way in American art, and expands our understanding of the variety of formal, material, and conceptual approaches that artists took to painting and related color-based sculpture. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.