Woman Crush Wednesday: Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), whose career spanned six decades, has long been recognized as one of the great American artists of the twentieth century. She was eminent among the second generation of postwar American abstract painters and is widely credited for playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting. Through her invention of the soak-stain technique, she expanded the possibilities of abstract painting, while at times referencing figuration and landscape in unique ways. She produced a body of work whose impact on contemporary art has been profound and continues to grow.

Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928, and raised in New York City. She attended the Dalton School, where she received her earliest art instruction from Rufino Tamayo. In 1949 she graduated from Bennington College, Vermont, where she was a student of Paul Feeley. She later studied briefly with Hans Hofmann.

Frankenthaler’s professional exhibition career began in 1950, when Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting Beach (1950) for inclusion in the exhibition titled Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. Her first solo exhibition was presented in 1951, at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and that year she was also included in the landmark exhibition 9th St. Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture. In 1952 Frankenthaler created Mountains and Sea, a breakthrough painting of American abstraction for which she poured thinned paint directly onto raw, unprimed canvas laid on the studio floor, working from all sides to create floating fields of translucent color. Mountains and Sea was immediately influential for the artists who formed the Color Field school of painting, notable among them Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.

As early as 1959, Frankenthaler began to be a regular presence in major international exhibitions. She won first prize at the Premiere Biennale de Paris that year, and in 1966 she represented the United States in the 33rd Venice Biennale, alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jules Olitski. She had her first major museum exhibition in 1960, at New York’s Jewish Museum, and her second, in 1969, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, followed by an international tour.

Frankenthaler experimented tirelessly throughout her long career. In addition to producing unique paintings on canvas and paper, she worked in a wide range of media, including ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and especially printmaking. Hers was a significant voice in the mid-century “print renaissance” among American abstract painters, and she is particularly renowned for her woodcuts. She continued working productively through the opening years of this century.

One final topic to address that is an unfortunate reflection of post WW2 United States: Frankenthaler was one of the few female artists that did not sacrifice her talent and career for what was viewed as gender appropriate roles. Many talented female painters and sculptors of the time, including Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, sacrificed much of their talent and career to take care of and support their husbands who in many cases, despite their prolific talent, were drug and alcohol addicts, philanderers, and generally incapable of taking care of themselves. Frankenthaler was a true pioneer and #bossbabe in every way.

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