© 2022 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

Helen Frankenthaler

American, 1928–2011



Acrylic on canvas, 98 x 118 cm
Gift from the collection of the late Bella and Harry Wexner, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum

In the early 1950s, Helen Frankenthaler met many of the Abstract Expressionists who were active in New York, her hometown, as well as the influential art critic Clement Greenberg. She married fellow abstract painter Robert Motherwell in 1958, and had her first museum retrospective at the Jewish Museum in 1960.

In 1951, Frankenthaler accompanied Greenberg on a visit to Pollock’s studio. Inspired by his practice of working with his whole body with a drip-and-pour method on unprimed canvases, Frankenthaler developed her own innovative technique, known as “soak-stain.” As Frankenthaler put it, “I am involved in making pictures ‘hold’ an explosive gesture, something that is moving in and out of landscape-like depths but lies flat in local areas – intact but not confined.” Abandoning traditional brushstrokes, she poured paint that had been diluted onto raw canvas, allowing it to soak in and spread in blots and stains across the rough-textured surface. She then used brushes and other tools to give direction to the translucent paints. Water-soluble acrylic gave her more control over the saturation of her fields of color. “. . .One really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it,” she once said of her work. “. . .It looks as if it was born in a minute.”

Frankenthaler’s technique influenced several other artists, including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, and created a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and the Color Field painters of the 1960s. Her paintings’ simplification and large scale exemplify the new American style. Frankenthaler brought her diaphanous forms to the very edge of the canvas, encouraging them to dissolve into one another. In Magenta, the viewer experiences the pouring and staining, as well as the more gestural brushstrokes. Mauve and purple tones come forth and recede, arousing associations of celestial bodies. By adding an orangey semi-florescent elevated surface that catches the light, Frankenthaler creates a bold, rich texture and enhances the painting’s ethereal feel.

Adina Kamien

Artists in Action

Helen Frankenthaler Transcends Abstract Expressionism

Andre Emmerich. Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, 1961. André Emmerich Gallery records, circa 1929-2009. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/items/detail/helen-frankenthaler-her-studio-1160

Helen Frankenthaler 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.