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Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) is remembered as one of the great American painters, her innovative technique and special brand of abstract expressionism garnering her legions of fans across the world, and making her a seminal figure in the American post-war landscape. To a generation of new women artists, Frankenthaler is an ongoing inspiration.

Interest in the work of abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler is growing every day. Frankenthaler was a vital and innovative figure across six decades of American post-war painting, and her role as a woman in that landscape is a constant source of interest, inspiration and study for generations of new artists.

The longevity of Helen Frankenthaler’s career can perhaps be attributed to the fact that she came to artistic maturity very early. Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, explains that “Frankenthaler was included in the landmark Ninth Street show in 1951 when she was only 22 years old and she produced what is still considered her most important, ‘breakthrough’ painting—Mountains and Sea—the following year.” Over 60 years, Frankenthaler cemented her place as one of the most prolific American artists of the 20th century.

A native New Yorker, Frankenthaler grew up on the Upper East Side, and was based in New York, where she had a studio for much of her life. However, as Smith explains, the artist had a number of global influences, and moved seamlessly across different disciplines. “Helen Frankenthaler traveled extensively in Europe, beginning at a young age, and visited the great museums there. She was highly influenced by the work of the old masters.”

Smith says, “Starting in the 1950s, she painted a number of works that directly reflect that influence, for example her 1957 painting Europa, which quotes a passage from a 16th-century painting—Titian’s Rape of Europa—and abstracts it.” She continues, “Over the years, other influences spanned Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse. Later in her career, she was influenced by Japanese printmaking and herself produced an extensive body of work in prints, becoming particularly acclaimed for her woodcuts.”

What Frankenthaler is best known for is her development of the “stain-painting” technique that influenced the work of the color field painters.“Early on, inspired by the example of Jackson Pollock, she developed a technique of thinning oil paint with turpentine and applying it directly onto unprimed canvas, laid on the floor,” Smith explains. “This allowed her to make paintings that approximated the idea of drawing with color, achieved through a balance of spontaneity and control in the application of the paint.”

Smith notes, however, that despite her profound influence on the color field painters, Frankenthaler’s own work resists such easy categorization. “She never fit comfortably within the designation of being a color field painter; instead, she is best understood as a second-generation abstract expressionist. She continued to work in a gestural way throughout her long career and to use many other methods of applying paint besides the pouring technique for which she first became known… She continuously experimented with the properties of color in terms of adjacencies, with contrasts and oppositions, and with highly nuanced treatments of the variety of hues of a single color.”

  • Words:
    Lucy Ballantyne
  • Photography:
    Getty Images/Ernst Haas

"The longevity of Helen Frankenthaler’s career can perhaps be attributed to the fact that she came to artistic maturity very early."

Following her death, Frankenthaler’s estate—including a substantial number of artworks, as well as her archives and papers and financial assets—passed to the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, an organization with a mission to steward Frankenthaler’s legacy, as well as promote public interest in the visual arts generally. “In our programs and in our philanthropy, we always strive to link to key aspects of Helen Frankenthaler’s life and work, such as her achievements as a youthful innovator, her deep commitment to the serious work of the studio practice, and her love of spirited discussion, discourse, and learning,” Elizabeth explains.

This mission has led to the foundation’s support of a range of organizations with which Frankenthaler was involved throughout her life. Commenting on how a range of contemporary women artists who, upon having discovered the work of Frankenthaler, perceived her as an inspiring role model, Smith notes: “Something that’s very important to us and to Helen’s legacy as we see it developing is that we find that younger artists find her work very interesting—this powerful, well-known confident woman artist who really marched to her own drummer.” This burgeoning interest from a generation of new artists is matched by renewed scholarly interest in Frankenthaler’s work, which means it is constantly assessed and redefined.

Smith says “the contributions of women artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation are undergoing a significant revisionist study today…a new generation of artists, curators, and scholars is looking at her work with fresh eyes and seeing it as highly contemporary in the way it relates to current concerns in painting.”

  • Words:
    Lucy Ballantyne
  • Photography:
    Getty Images/Ernst Haas
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