Helen Frankenthaler: Innovative painter who took abstract art in a new direction

 

In 1952, at the age of 23, Helen Frankenthaler painted the picture that would launch her career and free American abstraction from the heavy hand of Jackson Pollock. Pollock had already pioneered the technique known as "soak stain" painting, in which pigment is applied directly to the unprimed canvas. But where Pollock's paints were flicked on in splats or left to clot in scabby pools, the soak stains in Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea were washed thinly over the canvas in colours and forms that seemed vaguely floral. Seen in reproduction, Mountains and Sea looks like a work on paper, probably around A4 in size and done in watercolour. Actually, it is 7ft wide by 10ft high, and the method of its making, nailed to a wall in Frankenthaler's studio, was every bit as heroic as Pollock's.

In spite of this, Frankenthaler's work was quickly pigeonholed as feminine, a mistake that plagued her to the end of her life. "For me, being a 'lady painter' was not an issue," she said, sharply. "I don't resent being a female artist, and I don't exploit it. I paint." Unable to be one of the boys, she resolutely refused to be one of the girls: in the bra-burning Sixties, her views on feminism were scathing, outspoken and unpopular. Her politics, too, were not typically those of a New York Jewish painter.

This may have had something to do with Frankenthaler's untypically patrician background as an artist. Born in the Upper East Side to Alfred Frankenthaler, a judge in the New York State Supreme Court, her upbringing was less O Henry than Henry James. The three Frankenthaler girls were educated to have careers; Helen, showing signs of a precocious talent, as an artist.

Raised on Park Avenue, schooled privately in Manhattan and finished at the progressive Bennington College in Vermont, she returned to New York in 1949 as a fully formed Cubist. These old-fashioned tastes were soon changed by the high priest of pure abstraction, Clement Greenberg. Meeting the critic, 20 years her senior, in 1950 and taking him as a lover, the elfin Frankenthaler began to make the kind of work Greenberg was known to favour. His support of her survived the end of their affair in 1955, and he included Frankenthaler in his ground-breaking 1964 show, Post-Painterly Abstraction.

By then, Mountains and Sea had changed the face of American abstract painting. Shortly after the canvas was finished, Greenberg had taken the artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis to Frankenthaler's studio to see it. Both men were astonished. Jackson Pollock's sculptural surfaces and muscular posturing had seemed to mark a full stop to the possibilities of abstract painting. Now, in the thin washes, wide-open spaces and luminous palette of Mountains and Sea, they saw a chance of escape from texture into colour. The three artists would become the earliest proponents of the school known (by everyone except Clement Greenberg) as Colour Field painting.

In 1958 Frankenthaler married fellow-artist Robert Motherwell. Like his new wife's, Motherwell's background was highly privileged; the Harvard-educated son of the chairman of Wells Fargo Bank, he was already on his second marriage by the time the rather younger Frankenthaler met him. Throughout the Sixties, the couple lived the life of upper-class bohemians à la Scott Fitzgerald, summering in Provincetown, spending winters in France and Spain and driving too fast in a series of ever more powerful Mercedes Benz cars. They divorced in 1971.

Marriage to Motherwell may have done Frankenthaler's career a deal of harm. An early member of the New York School – he coined the movement's name himself – Motherwell worked in a graphic, black-on-white style which seemed designed to make his wife's paintings look emotional and soft-edged. While his work was constantly on show around the world, hers did less well: her first one-woman exhibition was in 1960, and then at the Jewish Museum of New York rather than, say, the Museum of Modern Art. Frankenthaler would be in her sixties by the time she was finally given a MoMA retrospective, in 1989. By that time, she was sitting as a presidential appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts, the American equivalent of the Arts Council; a post that seemed entirely in keeping with her patrician background and intuitively grand manner.

This appointment also highlighted Frankenthaler's distinctly un-bohemian politics. Writing in the New York Times in 1989, she criticised government subsidies of the arts as "not part of the democratic process", adding that state funding was "beginning to spawn an art monster". As a direct result of her views, the NEA, under the administration of George Bush Senior, cut grants to artists whose work Frankenthaler disliked – Andres Serrano, creator of Piss Christ, was perhaps the best-known victim – and slashed the Endowment's budget as a whole. All this made Frankenthaler unpopular in younger and more avant garde art circles, although – by now married to a Republican banker and living in the upper-class enclave of Darien, Connecticut – this seems not to have bothered her unduly.

Like all painters, Frankenthaler's reputation suffers from the confusion between life and art. As with many others, her later career seems less distinguished than her earlier: although she moved from oils into acrylic from the 1970s on and began to use Japanese woodblock images in her paintings, she never replicated the excitement of Mountains and Sea. None of this explains the sharp division of critical opinion on her work, which has tended to be either fawningly laudatory or vicious. In the latter camp is the critic of the Los Angeles Times, who has dismissed Frankenthaler as "a minor formalist artist" and Mountains and Sea as a work of "slight innovation". It is impossible to know whether he would have written these words had Frankenthaler been less privileged or politically conservative, or if she had been a man.

Charles Darwent

Helen Frankenthaler, artist: born New York City 12 December 1928; married 1958 Robert Motherwell (divorced 1971), 1994 Stephen DuBrul (died 4 January 2012); National Medal of Arts, 2001; died Darien, Connecticut, 27 December 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn