“The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible … It’s all about risks, deliberate risks.” This is how visual artist Helen Frankenthaler describes the enterprise she has pursued for five decades. Her constant high achievement ranks her as one of the most important contributors to the history of postwar American painting. More broadly, her work has consistently embodied and illuminated our understanding of modern experience generally; that is, the experience whereby we necessarily confront the risk of determining our relation to the world from within ourselves, without sanction by any external institutional structures and the rules by which they are defined. That Frankenthaler’s achievement has been forged and sustained in an era characterized by constant shifts of stylistic taste and fashion, in which artists and art movements seem regularly to appear and vanish overnight, marks at once the strength of the work and the exceptional character of its maker.
Helen Frankenthaler was born in New York City 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 New York’s Upper East Side, Frankenthaler absorbed the privileged background of a cultured and progressive Jewish family that encouraged all three daughters to prepare themselves for professional careers. She attended Horace Mann and Brearley schools, and in 1945, graduated from Dalton School, where she studied with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo.
Determined to pursue a career in the arts, she entered Bennington College, Vermont, in the spring of 1946 and commenced study with Paul Feeley. Under his guidance she learned the pictorial language of cubism, while also absorbing a formalist method of analyzing pictorial structure and evolving a deep and abiding respect for the old and modern masters of the history of art. She graduated from Bennington in July 1949. On her twenty-first birthday she received an inheritance from her father (he had died in 1940) that enabled her to secure her own New York apartment while also maintaining a separate studio. She commenced painting full-time, though she also took noncredit graduate courses in the history of art at Columbia University, one of them with the distinguished scholar Meyer Schapiro. A year later, she studied painting in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with Hans Hofmann.
In the spring of 1950, Frankenthaler organized an exhibition of Bennington College alumnae painters for the Jacques Seligmann Gallery in New York. There she met Clement Greenberg, one of the foremost art critics of the day and a recognized spokesman for the then-emerging New York School. She and Greenberg began a close relationship that continued until 1955. They traveled together extensively, to Madrid, Rome, Venice, and London, to look at old master paintings. Through him, she met Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Friedel Dzubas (with whom she shared a studio in 1952), Adolph Gottlieb, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, and other leading members of the generation of artists who, as the 1950s unfolded, became nationally and internationally acclaimed as abstract expressionists. After separating from Greenberg, she met painter Robert Motherwell, whom she married in 1958 (they divorced in 1971).
Thrust into this heady milieu—New York was rapidly being acclaimed the new center of the international art world—the precocious Frankenthaler responded by producing a series of audacious paintings, among them Mountains and Sea, which she completed in October 1952, shortly before her twenty-fourth birthday.
Measuring more than nine feet wide and seven feet high, Mountains and Sea subscribed to the ambitious scale already associated with abstract expressionism, and it also featured the loose, gestural paint handling that was becoming a trademark of the New York School. New and indeed remarkable was Frankenthaler’s application of her oil medium, which she thinned to the consistency of watercolor so that it would soak into and stain the canvas rather than accumulate on its surface. Inspired by Pollock’s pouring and dripping of paint, as well as by the watercolors she herself had produced the previous summer, Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique enabled an entirely new experience of pictorial color: fresh, breathing, disembodied, exhilarating in its unfettered appeal to eyesight alone.
Its significance was immediately grasped by a number of artists who were searching for alternatives to abstract expressionism’s (and especially de Kooning’s) more physical approach to paint. Among them were the Washington, D.C.–based painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, whom Greenberg took to Frankenthaler’s studio in the spring of 1953. There they saw Mountains and Sea and were deeply impressed by it, and they returned to Washington determined to explore its technical implications. The color field painting that came to prominence during the later 1950s and 1960s, by Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Dzubas, and Jules Olitski, among many others, can be said to have had its origin at that moment. Referring to it, Louis later said of Frankenthaler, “She was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” She made history before she was thirty years old.
Frankenthaler’s first solo exhibition took place at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, in the fall of 1951. Since then she has enjoyed virtually countless exhibitions in this country and around the globe, and she has been honored by a series of retrospectives at some of America’s most distinguished institutions: the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1960; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1980 (prints); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1985 (works on paper); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989.
Her awards include First Prize for Painting, Premiere Biennale de Paris, 1959; Joseph E. Temple Gold Medal Award, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1968; Annual Creative Artist Laureate Award of American Jewish Congress, 1974; Extraordinary Woman of Achievement Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, New York, 1978; New York City Mayor’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, 1986; and Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement, College Art Association, 1994.
She has received honorary degrees from Skidmore College (1969), Smith College (1973), Moore College of Art (1974), Bard College (1976), Radcliffe College (1978), Amherst College (1979), New York University (1979), Harvard University (1980), Philadelphia College of Art (1980), Williams College (1980), Yale University (1981), Brandeis University (1982), University of Hartford (1983), and Syracuse University (1985).
She has served the following appointments: Fulbright Selection Committee, 1963 to 1965; trustee, Bennington College, 1967 to 1982; member of the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1974; and member of the National Council on the Arts, 1985 to 1991. And she has lectured and conducted seminars at the School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania (1967), Princeton University (1971), Bennington College (1972), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University (1976), and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (1986).
This is a remarkable record of personal and professional accomplishment as well as institutional recognition. That it extends unbroken from the moment Frankenthaler graduated from college to the present day is equally remarkable, maybe even unique among artists of her generation. Even more impressive, however, is the fact of its accomplishment by a woman, and particularly a woman of her generation. The New York art world of the 1950s and 1960s, the period when she evolved to maturity, was decidedly a man’s world in which women occupied a marginal status at best. Few in number and virtually invisible when compared to their male counterparts, they exhibited less frequently, and they were generally excluded from the critical discourse of the day, for none was regarded as working on the “cutting edge.” That was male territory, and that was the rule of the day. More specifically, the rule in the 1950s was articulated by critic Harold Rosenberg, a champion of de Kooning, who called for a muscular encounter between artist and medium and a no-holds-barred gestural painting. With the arrival of the 1960s, the rule had shifted, and Greenberg’s voice was in ascendancy, calling for a more detached, cool, formal, and objective art—that is, not a battleground, but a sanctuary of contemplation.
Frankenthaler was exceptional in this setting. She showed regularly throughout both decades; in the 1950s with the highly respected Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and in the 1960s with the equally respected, but even more highly visible, Andre Emmerich Gallery. The reviews of her exhibitions were both regular and favorable. She enjoyed two New York retrospective exhibitions before the 1960s ended, at the Jewish Museum and the Whitney Museum. Based on her talent and the personal resolve that her parents had encouraged, yet clearly within the terms of the male-dominated, institutional rules of the day, she had established for herself a career as an artist. Compared to the women artists around her, she was enormously successful, an exception to the rule that only men could occupy center stage in the New York art world. She demonstrated what was possible in a way Morris Louis never imagined.
More problematically, but at the same time more revealingly, she was also an exception in terms of the critical discourse of the day. Commenting on Frankenthaler’s gesturalism in his review of her Whitney Museum retrospective, Rosenberg accused her of having never grasped “the moral and metaphysical basis of action painting,” adding that “her compositions fail to develop resistances against which a creative act can take place.” Commenting on Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique in his review of her Jewish Museum retrospective, Donald Judd, a follower of Greenberg’s formalism, compared her to Pollock, in whom “the result is cool, tough and rigorous. It has implications of objectivity and, as alien as that is, Frankenthaler may eventually need a form of it to continue.” These are astonishing conclusions. Frankenthaler did not grasp the basis on which the creative act could take place, and without objectivity she might be unable even to continue. Not physical enough on the one hand, not objective enough on the other, just like a woman—a woman, that is, defined stereotypically by the sexist male perspective of the 1950s and 1960s. Determined to define herself on her own terms and make art dictated from within that self, Frankenthaler risked being an exception to that rule. In doing so, she can be said to have proved it while also helping to bring it to its knees.
The rules and risks and possibilities mentioned by Frankenthaler were meant by the artist in reference to her art, to the traditions and conventions that are acknowledged or altered or discarded by it, to the unknown territory it opens before us and explores, to the deep significance of its creativity. Frankenthaler’s art embodies all of this, but it could not do so in the absence of the exceptional human being behind it.
Carmean Jr., E. A. Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective. New York: Harry N. Abrams; Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989.
Elderfield, John. Frankenthaler. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
Frankenthaler, Helen. After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler 1956-1959. With essays by Julia Brown and Susan Cross, and an interview with Helen Frankenthaler. New York: Guggenheim, 1998.
Goldman, Judith. Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts. New York: George Braziller, 2002.
Harrison, Pegram. Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonné, Prints 1961-1994. With an introduction by Susan Boorsch. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
O’Hara, Frank. Helen Frankenthaler: Paintings. Exhibition catalog, Jewish Museum, New York (1960);
Rose, Barbara. Frankenthaler, 3d ed. (1979); Wilkin, Karen. Frankenthaler: Works on Paper 1949–1984 (1984).
Solomon, Deborah. “An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler.” Partisan Review 51, no. 4 (1984-85): 793-98.
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Belz, Carl. "Helen Frankenthaler." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 14, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/frankenthaler-helen>.