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Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011)

Helen Frankenthaler, a widely acclaimed member of the New York School and a leading figure of second-generation abstract expressionists, is a prominent American artist.

Born in New York in 1928, Frankenthaler attended the Dalton School, where she studied with the Mexican painter, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991). After attending Bennington College in Vermont, she returned to New York to establish herself among the New York avant-garde. In 1950 she met the formalist art critic, Clement Greenberg, who proved instrumental in acquainting Frankenthaler with leading figures in the New York art world such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Like them, she was interested in transforming elements of nature into abstract shapes and color.

During the 1950s, Frankenthaler defined her personal style, moving away from abstract expressionism to develop a new technique: pouring thinned pigment onto unprimed canvas. This way of painting, asserting the primacy of color through fusing color and ground, led to a new style in art: color field painting. For a number of her contemporaries, soak-staining replaced the thickly painted, gestural strokes of action painting. This pouring technique created abstract fields of color, simplifications of scenes in nature, and achieved a dynamic lyricism that claims the picture space. Frankenthaler’s stained paintings, based on real or imaginary landscapes, epitomize her art.

In 1958 Frankenthaler married painter, Robert Motherwell, from whom she was later divorced. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s she continued to explore the use of large abstract forms and rich color in her canvases. but in this later work, Frankenthaler began to “flood” her canvases with color rather than staining them, a result of the artist’s switch from oil to acrylic paint. In addition to teaching at New York, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale Universities, Frankenthaler had numerous one-person exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969 and the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1989, and was recently included in the Denver Art Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, WOMEN OF ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM.