“Soak-stain” artist Helen Frankenthaler is born

December 12, 1928

Helen Frankenthaler was one of the most influential of the Abstract Expressionist artists of the mid-twentieth century.  Acclaimed throughout her career, she broke through the male-dominated upper echelons of the art world in the 1950s, largely through her creation of Color Field and “soak-staining.”

As the New York Times described it:

“Where [painter Jackson] Pollock had used enamel that rested on raw canvas like skin, Ms. Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it. Her staining method emphasized the flat surface over illusory depth, and it called attention to the very nature of paint on canvas, a concern of artists and critics at the time. It also brought a new, open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism. “

She first used this technique in her painting, “Mountains and Sea.” “The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” Ms. Frankenthaler told an interviewer. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.”

Born into a prosperous New York family, Ms. Frankenthaler graduated from Bennington College and returned to the city to pursue her art.  She married painter Robert Motherwell in 1958, and together they helped to define and extend the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Her first major museum show was at the Jewish Museum in 1960.  A retrospective in 1969 at the Whitney Museum of American Art solidified her reputation. 

In 1973 she made her first foray into printmaking with “East and Beyond,” a work that infused the woodcut with vibrant color and organic forms.  This work too had a deep influence on contemporary printmaking.

Her words to an interviewer in 2003 exemplify her approach to the act of creation: “The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible … It’s all about risks, deliberate risks … Let the picture lead you where it must go.”

Sources: “Helen Frankenthaler,” TheArtStory; “December 12 – Helen Frankenthaler,” JewishCurrents.org; “Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement,” New York Times, December 27, 2011; Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Oral History Project.

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Remembering Helen Frankenthaler: On the northwest rim of the Central Park reservoir there is a bench with a wonderful view looking across the water toward the Uppereastside (where she and her family had lived.) There is a name plate on the bench. 



Helen Frankenthaler in 1956.

Courtesy of Gordon Parks/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "“Soak-stain” artist Helen Frankenthaler is born." (Viewed on January 22, 2020) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/12/1928/this-week-in-history-soak-stain-artist-helen-frankenthaler-is-born>.


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