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"I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it."
December 27, 2011 1:18 PM   Subscribe

"I had no desire to copy Pollock. I didn’t want to take a stick and dip it in a can of enamel. I needed something more liquid, watery, thinner. All my life, I have been drawn to water and translucency. I love the water; I love to swim, to watch changing seascapes. One of my favorite childhood games was to fill a sink with water and punt nail polish into to see what happened when the colors burst up the surface, merging into each other as floating, changing shapes." - Helen Frankenthaler
Her paintings looked like watercolors, but were created with oils. To achieve the effect, she heavily diluted her oil paints with turpentine, then dripped them onto an unprimed canvas on the floor, in a brushless technique reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's, called a "soak stain." But where Pollock's paint was often thick and sat on top of the canvas, hers drenched it in color, creating a unique, softer work. Ms. Frankenthaler passed away today, at the age of 83, after a long illness.

Artnet has additional images of her work. Additional links can be found at Against the Grain. Her piece Nature Abhors a Vacuum is part of the permanent collection at the US National Gallery of Art.

Biography / Profiles / Reviews at The Art Story, The Jewish Women's Archive, The Wall Street Journal. The quote at the top of this post is from Wikiquote.

More on "Color Field" artwork, whose second generation she helped inspire.

Additional Obituaries: The Gallerist, Associated Press,
posted by zarq (35 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite


A magnificent artist, as well as the subject of one of my college term papers.
posted by sharkitect at 1:28 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by djseafood at 1:32 PM on December 27, 2011

i've always seen her as part of a continuum in the abstract expressionist movement; somewhwere between Pollock and De Kooning but bookended by Motherwell (who i did not know until today was her husband) and Guston.

in my early days here in nyc as a lonely transplant from puerto rico, i'd "hide" in museums for hours. i always would lose myself joyfully in the met's abs/exp room and spend hours looking at her work.

i should pay her a visit this week.

posted by liza at 1:35 PM on December 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


I learned a lot from these links.
posted by Currer Belfry at 1:36 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by angels in the architecture at 1:36 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by box at 1:36 PM on December 27, 2011

As an Art History major, I was thrilled when she was picked as one of the commencement speakers at my graduation from college, even though most of my classmates had never heard of her. I'm sorry to say I don't remember the content of her speech, but I do remember liking it much better than that of the "marquee" commencement speaker, whose identity I don't even remember.

posted by Rock Steady at 1:40 PM on December 27, 2011

Great stuff, great lady. I hope we all learn a lot from her mixed up files.
posted by chavenet at 1:53 PM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by FeralHat at 1:54 PM on December 27, 2011

Wow, to be honest, I had no idea she was still alive. A great painter. I hope she rests in peace.
posted by OmieWise at 2:01 PM on December 27, 2011

I have this counter factual in my head, where her Sea and Mountain, would have been the edge of abstract painting, instead of Pollock, and this brings me comfort. I think the colur field painters are both brilliant, and perhaps permenatly out of fashion, perhaps because of Greenberg, which makes me sad, because i think they are among the greatest american painters post wwii, esp. Frankenthaler.
posted by PinkMoose at 2:24 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

First or second Motherwell wife? She may have lived across the street from me in Provincetown when I was a kid.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:24 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, .
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:24 PM on December 27, 2011

Although I was schooled in the idea of first and second tier Ab Ex's, along with a little Lee Krasner pioneer and HF more breakthrough... when I encountered one of her paintings at the Palm Springs Art Museum - and had put a few more visual miles onto my eyeballs - I was really moved by this painting.

The Museum is already quite modern and really set up for works like this, but the I found the scale really impressive, but more impressive was the ability to handle so much canvas with commitment and ideas. After seeing that, the notion of her as a second tier artist slid away.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 2:26 PM on December 27, 2011

Obscure Reference: "First or second Motherwell wife? She may have lived across the street from me in Provincetown when I was a kid."

Wikipedia says she was Motherwell's third wife, and that they spent the summer of 1962 in Provincetown. They had a studio there.
From 1954 to 1958, during the break-up of his second marriage, he worked on a small series of paintings which incorporated the words Je t’aime, expressing his most intimate and private feelings. His collages began to incorporate material from his studio such as cigarette packets and labels becoming records of his daily life. He was married for the third time, from 1958 to 1971, to Helen Frankenthaler, a successful abstract painter.
In 1962 Motherwell and Frankenthaler spent the summer at the artists’ colony at Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the coastline inspired the "Beside the Sea" series of 64 paintings, the oil paint splashed with full force against rag paper imitating the sea crashing on the shore in front of his studio.
More, by Jeannie Motherwell:
In 1957, my parents divorced and Dad married Helen Frankenthaler the following year. My sister and I now summered with my father and Helen in a 100 year old captain's house on the corner of Allerton & Commercial Streets in Provincetown, MA (currently owned by the artist Cynthia Packard). One summer, an old cottage across the street on the water side went on the market because the long-time owner died. I remember Dad spending days sitting on its vacant deck hoping one day he would be able to buy it. However, now that he had this opportunity, the deal almost went sour because the owner's family didn't want to part with it. Eventually he was able to purchase the house by the end of the following summer. He tore the whole structure down except for the stairs and chimney as per code and rebuilt it calling it the "Sea Barn". The house was built to look and feel like a ship. In fact, he often referred to himself as the "Captain of his ship". Originally the Sea Barn was supposed to be our "beach house" - the bottom floor for my sister Lise and me to play, and the top two floors designated studios for Helen and Dad.

posted by zarq at 2:32 PM on December 27, 2011


Thank you for the beautiful art.
posted by bearwife at 2:35 PM on December 27, 2011

Although I always enjoyed Frankenthaler's pigment-drenched works, I wasn't sure why until I visited D.C. while using some fine LSD and wandered into the Hirshhorn.

I was immediately confronted by a Frankenthaler canvas--absolutely engaged, moved, run through by it--and it made perfect sense to me; my interpretation, given to my perfectly sober traveling companion, prompted a nearby guard to tell me mine was among the best he'd heard.

The experience made me wonder: what kind of magnificent brain processes imagery that mere mortals such as I need a chemically-altered brain to decipher? I was, and am, in awe.

posted by kinnakeet at 2:36 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by Scoo at 2:56 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by provoliminal at 3:12 PM on December 27, 2011

Frankenthaler was a brilliant artist. I wish there were more high-quality images of her work online, because she's someone whose deserves a bigger audience. It's shameful how terrible the MOMA website is, considering how wonderful it could be.
posted by Kattullus at 3:15 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by billypilgrim at 3:47 PM on December 27, 2011

Like much of the work of her compatriots, a Frankenthaler must be seen in-person to be honestly appreciated. Beautiful stuff.

posted by Thorzdad at 3:52 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by a halcyon day at 5:01 PM on December 27, 2011

Love her work. Zarq you beat me to the punch posting this ;-) She's been a huge influence on me and many other artists I know with the subtle fluidity of her work. Her approach to woodcut changed printmaking significantly. Just an astonishing artist.

posted by leslies at 5:38 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by argonauta at 6:06 PM on December 27, 2011


That rarest of things, a life lived in art.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 6:10 PM on December 27, 2011

posted by safetyfork at 6:35 PM on December 27, 2011

Extraordinary work. I wish I'd discovered her work sooner.

posted by arcticseal at 6:45 PM on December 27, 2011

I went to art school (shh, you) and over and over again I had the experience of looking deeply at an artists work that I thought I knew (based on a few images glimpsed in big art survey books over the years - remember when you couldn't see reproductions of every bit of every artist's work whenever you wanted to, at the click of a button?) and discovering just how good they really were. I had that happen with Frankenthaler something fierce. She wasn't peripheral and incidental - a sentence and a few thumbnails - she was a fucking MONSTER, every bit as fiercely visioned and uncompromising as any of those cats, and probably more. Amazing, amazing work. God damn.

posted by dirtdirt at 8:29 PM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

posted by From Bklyn at 12:48 AM on December 28, 2011

posted by klausness at 4:59 AM on December 28, 2011

Agreed, her work is amazing.
posted by Capybara at 6:08 AM on December 28, 2011

leslies: "Zarq you beat me to the punch posting this ;-) "

Sorry! :)
posted by zarq at 6:28 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

in a 100 year old captain's house on the corner of Allerton & Commercial Streets in Provincetown, MA

That was the house! And across Allerton from me was the house of Hirshhorn's ex.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:22 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

In case anybody circles back here, interesting assessment, How Will Helen Frankenthaler's Art Stand the Test of Time?
posted by wallstreet1929 at 8:28 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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