Helen Frankenthaler (December 12, 1928 – December 27, 2011) was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Having exhibited her work for over six decades (early 1950s until 2011), she spanned several generations of abstract painters while continuing to produce vital and ever-changing new work.
Frankenthaler began exhibiting her large-scale abstract expressionist paintings in contemporary museums and galleries in the early 1950s. She was included in the 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg that introduced a newer generation of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field.
Born in Manhattan, she was influenced by Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock's paintings and by Clement Greenberg. Her work has been the subject of several retrospective exhibitions, including a 1989 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and been exhibited worldwide since the 1950s. In 2001, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
She was born in Manhattan on December 12, 1928. Her father was Alfred Frankenthaler, a respected New York State Supreme Court judge. Her mother, Martha (Lowenstein), had emigrated with her family from Germany to the United States shortly after she was born. Her two sisters, Marjorie and Gloria, were six and five years older, respectively. Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Frankenthaler absorbed the privileged background of a cultured and progressive intellectual family that encouraged all three daughters to prepare themselves for professional careers. Her nephew is the artist/photographer Clifford Ross.
Frankenthaler studied at the Dalton School under Rufino Tamayo and also at Bennington College in Vermont. She met Clement Greenberg in 1950 and had a five-year relationship with him.
She was later married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell (1915–1991), from 1958 until they divorced in 1971. She has two stepdaughters, Jeannie Motherwell and Lise Motherwell. Both born of wealthy parents, the pair was known as "the golden couple" and noted for their lavish entertaining. She married Stephen M. DuBrul, Jr., an investment banker who served the Ford administration, in 1994.
Initially associated with abstract expressionism her career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition of Mountains and Sea. This painting is large - measuring seven feet by ten feet - and has the effect of a watercolor, though it is painted in oils. In it, she introduced the technique of painting directly onto an unprepared canvas so that the material absorbs the colors. She heavily diluted the oil paint with turpentine so that the color would soak into the canvas. This technique, known as "soak stain" was used by Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and others; and was adopted by other artists notably Morris Louis (1912–1962), and Kenneth Noland (1924–2010), and launched the second generation of the Color Field school of painting. This method would sometimes leave the canvas with a halo effect around each area to which the paint was applied but has a disadvantage in that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.
One of her most important influences was Clement Greenberg (1909–1994), an influential art and literary critic with whom she had a personal friendship and who included her in the Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition that he curated in 1964.
Through Greenberg she was introduced to the New York art scene. Under his guidance she spent the summer of 1950 studying with Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), catalyst of the Abstract Expressionist movement.
The first Jackson Pollock show Frankenthaler saw was at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1950. She had this to say about seeing Pollock's paintings Autumn Rhythm, Number 30, 1950 (1950), Number One,1950 (Lavender Mist) (1950):
In 1960 the term Color Field painting was used to describe the work of Frankenthaler. This style was characterized by large areas of a more or less flat single color. The Color Field artists set themselves apart from the Abstract Expressionists because they eliminated the emotional, mythic or the religious content and the highly personal and gestural and painterly application.
Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions."
At her death 27 December 2011 it became widely known through social media that Frankenthaler singlehandedly tried to stop the support of artists whose work were different from hers and was one of those responsible for the NEA dropping individual grants to artists.
According to LA Times, "Frankenthaler did take a highly public stance during the late 1980s "culture wars" that eventually led to deep budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and a ban on grants to individual artists that still persists. At the time, she was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA's chairman.
In a 1989 commentary for the New York Times, she wrote that, while "censorship and government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process," controversial grants to Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and others reflected a trend in which the NEA was supporting work "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?"