Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler in front of Mountains and Sea (1952) in her West End Avenue apartment, New York, spring 1956

Helen Frankenthaler Listed Exhibitions (Selected) (79 Kb)
Helen Frankenthaler Bibliography (Selected) (177 Kb)

Helen Frankenthaler has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. The paintings in her first solo exhibition of 1951, at age twenty–two, synthesized the most radical aspects of the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky, with canvases of textured surfaces, washed with pale color, and articulated by calligraphic drawing. The following year, she painted Mountains and Sea, a breakthrough composition created by pouring thinned paint onto unsized canvas so that the paint soaked into the canvas, staining rather than coating, to become at once the coloring and the drawing.

The 1950s saw the beginning of Frankenthaler's mature style as she gave full rein to color beyond the ordinary, freedom of composition, absolute candor in the means of the making, and an ambiguous figuration with “a sort of symbolically garden quality,” as she put it. By 1960, her work had become sparer and brighter—like much New York School painting—and linearity soon almost disappeared as shaped–areas of color dominated. By the mid–1960s, she had established the polarity across which she would work with such fecundity for the next forty years: painterly drawing and shape–making, both of which contributed to the ambiguity of reference and the creation of pictorial space. For much of the 1970s the two sides were frequently counterpointed, but by 1976–77 shape and area had become dominant. A decade later, the counterpoint was reasserted and it continued until her painting slowed and finally ended in the early years of this century. Her final canvas was painted fifty years after Mountains and Sea. In addition to painting on canvas and on paper, Frankenthaler made sculptures, ceramics, and set designs, but the medium that most attracted her was printmaking—in particular the creation of woodcuts—hers counting among the greatest of contemporary works in that medium.

Helen Frankenthaler was born in 1928 in New York, and died in 2011 in Darien, Connecticut. She received her B.A. in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler’s work has been part of numerous group exhibitions including “Making Choices: 24 exhibitions of Modern Art from 1920 to 1960,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2000); “A Century of Drawing: Works on Paper from Degas to LeWitt,” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2001); “Black Mountain College: Experimenting With Power,” Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2002); “Visions and Revisions: Art on Paper Since 1960,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2003); “The Kenneth E. Tyler Print Gift,” Tate Modern and Tate Liverpool, London (2004); “Artists & Prints: Part 3,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York (2005); “Full House: Views of the Whitney’s Collection at 75,” Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2006); The Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York (2007); “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976,” The Jewish Museum, New York (2008); “Artists Femmes dans les Collections du Centre Pompidou,” Centre Pompidou, Paris (2009); “The Changing Soil: Contemporary Landscape Painting,” Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Japan (2010); “Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler,” Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Massachusetts (2015); and “Women of Abstract Expressionism,” Denver Art Museum, Colorado (2016). Recent solo museum exhibitions include “The Woodcuts,” Yale University Art Gallery, Connecticut (2002, traveled to Naples Art Museum, Florida; Dai Nippon Graphics Center, Tokyo; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; and Slander–O’Reilly Galleries, New York); “Paintings on Paper (1949–2002),” Museum of Contemporary Art, Florida (2003, traveled to Edinburgh Royal Scottish Academy, Scotland); and “Against the Grain: the Woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler,” National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2005).