Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Expressionist, Remembered

  • Helen Frankenthaler, “The Bay,” 1963.  Acrylic on canvas.

    Helen Frankenthaler, “The Bay,” 1963. Acrylic on canvas.

    Detroit Institute of Arts

Painter and printmaker Helen Frankenthaler passed away December 27, 2012, at the age of 83 after a long, unspecified illness.

At age 23, Frankenthaler broke onto the New York art scene with her painting “Mountains and Sea.” This work showcased her “soak stain” technique, in which Frankenthaler thinned oil paint and applied it in washes of color that would then soak into the untreated canvas creating a watercolorlike effect.

Later, she would use acrylic paint instead of oils for her monumental canvases, which would produce a more stable surface. One early example of this change of medium is “The Bay” from 1963, a seminal work that required restoration after a 12-year-old visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts stuck a piece of chewing gum on it in 2006.

Frankenthaler came to be a key member of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, a movement that was notoriously macho and androcentric. Frankenthaler was directly inspired by first generation Abstract Expressionist great, Jackson Pollock.

She made a name for herself with her own version of drip paintings, which may better be described as “pouring” paintings.  She inspired many artists with her technique, including Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, who would go on to be integral to the Color Field painting movement.

Frankenthaler was born and raised in Manhattan, where she enjoyed a privileged life along with her two older sisters.  Encouraged by her parents to pursue a professional career, early on she studied at the progressive Dalton School under famed Mexican painter, Rufino Tamayo.  From there she went on to study at Bennington School in Vermont before returning to New York. 

In 1950, she met influential art critic Clement Greenberg, who was closely associated with the Abstract Expressionism movement.  Greenberg was an important influence on Frankenthaler and the two would have a relationship that lasted for five years.  However, it was fellow artist Robert Motherwell who Frankenthaler would marry in 1958, though the two would divorce in 1971.

Later in life, Frankenthaler created controversy with her critical take on who should be awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her views were to contribute greatly to decision of the NEA to discontinue grants to individual artists.  In a 1989 commentary for the New York Times, Frankenthaler voiced concerns about what she saw as a growing trend of supporting art "of increasingly dubious quality. Is the council, once a helping hand, now beginning to spawn an art monster? Do we lose art ... in the guise of endorsing experimentation?"

She received the National Endowment for the Arts Medal of the Arts in 2002, presented by George W. Bush. 

Helen Frankenthaler is survived by her second husband, Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., and her six nieces and nephews.

(Report: Christine Bolli for ARTFIXdaily)

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