Helen Frankenthaler

Born 1928. Died 2011.
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Helen Frankenthaler Biography

Helen Frankenthaler was a seminal figure of the second generation of postwar American abstract painters, and has come to be recognized as one of the inventors of Color Field painting. Born in New York in 1928 (her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge), she first studied art with painter Rufino Tamayo while attending the Dalton School, before studying with artist Paul Feeley at Bennington College in Vermont, where she graduated with her BA in 1949. Subsequently, she studied privately with acclaimed painter Hans Hoffman in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A sizeable inheritance allowed Frankenthaler to return to New York, following her training with Hoffman, to paint full time.

Frankenthaler’s first major career achievement was having her work chosen by the painter Adolph Gottlieb to be included in the 1950 exhibition Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. That same year she met seminal art critic Clement Greenberg, who would introduce her to the leading artists of the New York art scene of the time—including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Willem de Kooning—as well as help facilitate her inclusion in several major international exhibitions. The following year she had her first solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and by 1960 she was the subject of her first retrospective, held at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Although working solidly within abstraction, her works at times strongly allude to both landscape and figuration; of her compositions she once observed, “My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates.” Preeminent in her oeuvre as well was her openness to experimentation, both in medium (she completed works in ceramics, tapestry, and printmaking among others) and technique. It was this experimental nature that led her to develop a unique method of thinning her pigments and washing them over unprimed canvas, leading to what is now termed a soak-stain technique. Canvases executed in this technique are considered one of the key foundational elements of Color Field painting done in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Frankenthaler was the subject of numerous retrospectives in New York during her lifetime, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. Frankenthaler died in 2011 at her home in Darien, Connecticut, but her legacy continues, as her work is included in numerous major collections worldwide.

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