Helen Frankenthaler changed the course of American abstractionism with her free-flowing color fields and built “a bridge between Pollock and what was possible,” as one visitor to her studio gushed afterward. But while her canvases sang with color, daring and invention, she lived her own life strictly within the lines.

By Tim Hornyak

There’s an early photograph by Life magazine’s Gordon Parks of artist Helen Frankenthaler in a corner of her studio, with the walls and floor covered in her outsized canvases, large washes of blues, grays, pinks and browns. Dressed in a blouse and skirt, legs tucked under her, Frankenthaler has a faraway, dreamy expression and almost looks like a mermaid in an undersea fantasy. It’s an image that symbolizes the intense, immersive quality of Frankenthaler’s paintings, drawing the viewer into an irresistible maelstrom of color. “People say to me, ‘How do you feel in the middle of making a picture?’” the American painter once said. “I can’t answer. I think something takes over… you’re lost in it.”

Frankenthaler died in 2011 at the age of 83 after a career that spanned more than six decades. The engrossing power of her giant canvases helped change postwar American painting. Parks’ photo was taken only a few years after Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea, her 1952 breakthrough work. She painted it at age 23 after visiting Cape Breton Island, but the oil and charcoal canvas is more of an ephemeral impression of the Atlantic crashing against the rocks of Nova Scotia than a landscape per se. It reveals how she was influenced by abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, but it also showcases her soak-stain technique of pouring diluted paint onto an unprimed canvas on the floor, allowing the watery oils to soak into the fabric and coalesce into amorphous fields of color.

Helen Frankenthaler

The work was a “bridge from Pollock to what was possible,” said fellow abstract painter Morris Louis, who, along with Frankenthaler, was among the originators of the Color Field movement, which emphasizes flat color planes removed from any figurative or subject matter, and includes artists such as Mark Rothko, Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas.

Frankenthaler was born in 1928, the daughter of a New York State Supreme Court judge, and grew up in comfortable surroundings. She studied art from an early age at the Dalton School, where she took lessons from the Mexican modernist painter Rufino Tamayo. At Bennington College in Vermont, she studied under Paul Feeley. After graduating in 1949, she returned to New York and her real education began through contact with other artists. “That shock, that recognition of what was going on in the art world in New York in those early ’50s was tremendous for me and my painting,” Frankenthaler told Charlie Rose in 1993, describing the effect of seeing Pollock’s work on the floor of his studio. “The approach took painting literally off the easel, so instead of dealing head on with four sides and four corners, you felt the boundaries of the canvas, the scale of it, were endless. That thrust of shoulder as compared to wrist alone, and zeroing in and telescoping, was nothing compared to this sweep of handling the method and material in a different way.”

Frankenthaler first exhibited in a group show in New York in 1950, and participated in the influential 9th Street Art Exhibition of the following year. By the early 1960s, she was married to Robert Motherwell, an abstract expressionist of the New York School, and featuring in major international exhibitions as well as a retrospective of her own work. Over the following decades, as the Color Field movement expanded and changed, Frankenthaler’s works spun like a phantasmagoric carousel, teasing representation with suggestive shapes and titles like Milkwood Arcade (1963), Sphinx (1976), Cedar Hill (1983), Skywriting (1996) and Cloud Burst (2002). She also experimented in mediums including paper, sculpture, printmaking, ceramics and tapestry while interest in her art grew.

I’m not a safari girl—I never want to go on a safari. My safaris are all on the studio floor.

Helen Frankenthaler

By the time she died in Connecticut in 2011, Frankenthaler had taught at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, been the subject of numerous scholarly articles and books, and received many accolades including the National Medal of Arts. Mountains and Sea now hangs in the National Gallery of Art on extended loan.

In her private life, unlike in her art, Frankenthaler always drew within the lines. “My life,” she told The New York Times in 1989, “is square and bourgeois. I like calm and continuity. I think as a person I’m very controlling, and I’m afraid of big risks. I’m not a skier or a mountain climber or a motorcyclist. And I’m not a safari girl—I never want to go on a safari. My safaris are all on the studio floor. That’s where I take my danger.” Perhaps as a result of her unabashedly square personality, she had her detractors: Some critics suggested her work, which shies from overt emotion and movement, was decorative and without depth. That’s not too surprising given her comments like this one, also from The New York Times in 1989: “What concerns me when I work is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it’s pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is—did I make a beautiful picture?”

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