The Washington DC Color Field Painter Helen Frankenthaler has passed away aged 83. She will be remembered for her sublime, large-scaled colour – washed paintings and for a diverse and productive career.
Frankenthaler burst onto the Post War art scene in the early 1950s
She was one of the first artists to experiment with the unprimed canvas surface. In 1952, with her series Mountain and Sea, the artist had a breakthrough. By pouring a wash of paint onto unprimed canvas and staining it, the effect was groundbreaking. Frankenthaler had been part of the Washington Color School and a leading light of the “soak-stain” technique that involves applying thinned oil paint to canvas, creating a watercolour effect. Her style is credited with having helped American art make the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Post Painterly Abstraction.
It was a year later that Morris Louis, who would go on to become Washington’s most celebrated painter, would meet Frankenthaler, on the urging of New York Times art critic, Clement Greenberg. After Louis saw Mountains and Sea in 1953 on a visit with Kenneth Noland—another painter who would be remembered later as a founder of the Washington Color School movement, Louis dropped what he was doing and adopted Frankenthaler’s newly developed technique. Pollock’s influence was also evident in Frankenthaler’s preference for large-scale canvases and painting on the floor rather than on easel.
In the 1960s, Frankenthaler began to use acrylic paint in place of oil. Paintings like Canyon, show the large washes of bright color over the picture plane that were possible with new materials. In 1964, her work was included in an exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Greenberg titled the show, Post-Painterly Abstraction, identifying a new strain of painting born out of Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler also began to show internationally, exhibiting at the International Biennial of Art in Venice in 1966 and in the United States Pavilion at Expo in Montreal in 1967. She also began to hone her skills in alternate media at this time, and embraced printmaking, creating woodcuts, aquatints, and lithographs that rivaled her painting in craftsmanship.
Louis and Noland have always been remembered among the heavies of the Washington Color School, along with painters Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tow Downing, and Paul Reed. (Later artists connected to this movement include Anne Truitt and Sam Gilliam.) These men deliberately took the expressionism out of the color field paintings, deciding on control and precision over lyricism for the better part of their careers. But it was Frankenthaler’s invention, or discovery, that served as the founding principle of the Washington Color School.
Frankenthaler also worked in ceramics, sculpture, woodcuts, tapestry and printmaking. In 1958, she wed fellow artist Robert Motherwell. Their 13 year marriage could be compared to Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore in the UK.
Her death prompted the family to release the following statement, “It is with profound sadness that we must announce the death of the artist Helen Frankenthaler, who died after a long illness” She is survived by her husband Stephen DuBrul, an investment banker that she married in 1994, as well as her two stepdaughters, Jeannie and Lise Motherwell and several nieces and nephews. The Artist Helen Frankenthaler, who passed away at her home in Darien, Connecticut on Tuesday, will be be sadly missed.