Helen Frankenthaler has just died at the age of 83. She was an American-born painter, printmaker, and sculptor who, along with fellow artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, spearheaded the practice of Colour Field painting, a component of Abstract Expressionism. Her innovative technique, along with her use of landscape to inform her abstract work, changed the way artists conceived of and used color in their own work and made her the most prominent female member of the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field Painting movements. She was married to artist Robert Motherwell.

HELEN FRANKENTHALER emerged as an important artist 50 years ago with ”Mountains and Sea” (1952), a ”soak-stain” painting she made by pouring thinned paint onto unprimed canvas. (see work on the right below) With one work she had outflanked Abstract Expressionism and anticipated the Colour Field school, somehow marrying painterly brio and lyrical restraint.

Key Ideas 
  • Frankenthaler echoed Jackson Pollock in both the large scale of her canvases and her decision to paint on the floor rather than on an easel. Unlike Pollock, however, her paintings conveyed a tranquil experience of the natural world rather than an intermittently ominous sense of the sublime.
  • Frankenthaler emphasized the role of her “wrist” as her own personal artistic signature and in this way aligned herself with the Abstract Expressionists and the importance they placed on the visibility of “the artist’s hand” in a painting.
  • Frankenthaler’s use of light hearkens back to landscape painters of earlier centuries who used light from the natural world to define focal points and illuminate their works, but absent in her work is the religious sentiment they sought to inspire.