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Helen Frankenthaler

"There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about."

- Helen Frankenthaler

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Helen Frankenthaler in her Days Lumberyard studio, standing in front of "Black With Shadows" in Provincetown, Massachusetts, summer 1961. 

Credited with inventing the stain technique, whereby thin layers of diluted oil paint are allowed to saturate unprimed canvas, Helen Frankenthaler was one of the most significant artists to work in the idioms of both second-generation Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting. Frankenthaler was born in 1928 in New York City, where she lived and worked for most of her life. She studied art first at the Dalton School, under Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, and later at Bennington College in Vermont, where she worked with artist Paul Feeley, graduating in 1949.

The year 1950 proved pivotal in Frankenthaler’s career. She studied privately under acclaimed artist and teacher Hans Hofmann at his school in Provincetown, Massachusetts, then returned to New York to paint full time. That same year she first showed publicly at the Kootz Gallery and was also introduced to leading art critic Clement Greenberg. He in turn put her in touch with other leading artists then working in the city, including Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, and David Smith. These connections and experiences led to her first solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1951.

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First Blizzard

1957

Oil on canvas

50 x 60 inches

127 x 152.4cm

Though considered an heir to Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler departed radically from its emphasis on painterliness when she created her stain technique, which gave oil paint many of the textural qualities of watercolor. Her innovation was adopted by artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis, who together visited her studio in 1953.They, among several other artists, went on to become pioneers of the Color Field movement. 

In 1958, Frankenthaler married fellow painter Robert Motherwell, emerging as the art-world power couple over the next decade. Frankenthaler continued experimenting with shape, line, and color, and her work was consistently well received. She held a solo show at the Jewish Museum in 1960, and a traveling retrospective initiated by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969. Motherwell and Frankenthaler divorced in 1971, and some time later she established a second studio in Connecticut. In this new setting, she had sufficient space to begin experimenting with sculpture and printmaking.

Frankenthaler is recognized as a major figure in the development of postwar American painting, and her work has been acquired by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Tate Gallery, London; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

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