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 April 22, 2023
Drawing within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s
March 9–April 22, 2023
541 West 24th Street, New York
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
Carol Armstrong and John Elderfield
In conjunction with the exhibition Drawing within Nature: Paintings from the 1990s at Gagosian in New York, Carol Armstrong and John Elderfield discuss Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings and large-scale works on paper dating from 1990 to 1995.
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.
Expanding Climate Action in the Visual Arts
Friday, September 22, 2023, 5:30pm
New Museum, New York
Join the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation during Climate Week NYC for a panel discussion featuring recent Frankenthaler Climate Initiative (FCI) grantees. Through a moderated conversation with museum and university leaders, Expanding Climate Action in the Visual Arts explores current models for energy efficiency and clean energy in the arts—and concludes with a series of action items and next steps that arts organizations can consider taking. The event includes brief presentations by several recent FCI grant recipients, plus invited leaders from the cultural field who are shaping climate change action in the visual arts. The event will also be livestreamed.
Helen Frankenthaler, Reef, 1991 © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever
On Helen Frankenthaler
Sunday, May 21, 2023, 5pm EDT
Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, will give a talk as part of the Art of Relationships, a series of Zoom lectures organized in conjunction with the exhibition Creative Exchanges: Artists in Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s Address Books, on view at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York, through July 30, 2023. Smith will consider some of Frankenthaler’s earliest works and will reflect on what made Frankenthaler’s painting, in Morris Louis’s later words, a “bridge between Pollock and what was possible” for other artists in the 1950s.
Elizabeth Smith. Photo: Scott Rudd
January 12–15, 2023, booth BF05
Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Singapore
Gagosian is pleased to announce the gallery’s participation in the inaugural edition of ART SG, with a selection of works by international contemporary artists including Banksy, Georg Baselitz, Ashley Bickerton, Edmund de Waal, Helen Frankenthaler, Katharina Grosse, Mark Grotjahn, Damien Hirst, Howard Hodgkin, Thomas Houseago, Tetsuya Ishida, Alex Israel, Jia Aili, Harmony Korine, Takashi Murakami, Nam June Paik, Giuseppe Penone, Ed Ruscha, Spencer Sweeney, Sarah Sze, Tatiana Trouvé, Anna Weyant, Jonas Wood, and Zeng Fanzhi.
Gagosian’s booth at ART SG 2023. Artwork, left to right: © Ashley Bickerton; © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2022; © Banksy; © Zeng Fanzhi; © 2020 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All rights reserved. Photo: Sebastiano Pellion di Persano
The Inner Island
April 28–November 4, 2023
Fondation Carmignac, Porquerolles, France
This exhibition, which features more than eighty works by fifty artists, presents visitors with new, unknown worlds floating outside familiar geographies and temporalities. The artists included break away from reality, bringing to life fictional, mental, and abstract islands. Work by Harold Ancart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Helen Frankenthaler, Simon Hantaï, Roy Lichtenstein, Albert Oehlen, and Christopher Wool is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Overture, 1992 © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Helen Frankenthaler in
Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–70
June 3–October 22, 2023
Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, France
Action, Gesture, Paint brings together more than 150 paintings by an overlooked generation of eighty international women artists. The exhibition’s geographic breadth demonstrates that, while Abstract Expressionism is said to have begun in the United States, artists all over the world were exploring similar themes of materiality, freedom of expression, perception, and gesture in the postwar period. This exhibition has traveled from Whitechapel Gallery, London. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, April Mood, 1974, installation view, Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, France © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: François Deladerrière
Helen Frankenthaler in
Creative Exchanges: Artists in Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s Address Books
May 4–July 30, 2023
Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, East Hampton, New York
Three address books that belonged to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner are on view together with more than thirty works by artists whose names, addresses, and telephone numbers appear in them. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, Cloudscape, 1951 © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Helen Frankenthaler in
Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940–1970
February 9–May 7, 2023
Whitechapel Gallery, London
Action, Gesture, Paint brings together more than 150 paintings by an overlooked generation of eighty international women artists. The exhibition’s geographic breadth demonstrates that, while Abstract Expressionism is said to have begun in the United States, artists all over the world were exploring similar themes of materiality, freedom of expression, perception, and gesture in the postwar period. Work by Helen Frankenthaler is included.
Helen Frankenthaler, April Mood, 1974 © 2023 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: courtesy ASOM Collection