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.
Frankenthaler's first retrospective was at the Jewish Museum, New York in 1960. Subsequent surveys included the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1969; and international tour) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1989; and tour). In addition to the many essays and articles on her work, she was the subject of three monographs: Frankenthaler by Barbara Rose (1972); Frankenthaler by John Elderfield (1989–90); and Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonné of Prints 1961–1994 by Suzanne Boorsch and Pegram Harrison (1996).
Her work is represented in the permanent collections of many institutions worldwide, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.