Born in Manhattan, New York, Helen Frankenthaler became the leader of the Color Field painters in New York City, emerging in the 1950s under the influence of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Her work is a transition from Abstract Expressionism.
She was educated at New York’s Dalton School, and in high school studied with Rufino Tamayo and later with Hans Hofmann. She attended Bennington College. Her family vacationed in Maine where she learned to love open views of land and sea, subject matter and an attitude of expansiveness reflected in her canvases.
With a studio in New York, her mentor became art critic Clement Greenberg who introduced her to most of the prominent 1950s artists including Pollock and DeKooning who, in turn, became her inspirations for gestural technique, Action Painting. From 1958 to 1971, she was married to artist Robert Motherwell.
When Jackson Pollock first exhibited some of his paintings in 1951, they exerted a great influence on Frankenthaler. Their scale. free graphic rhythms, and color impressed her strongly; but above all she was struck by Pollock’s method of dripping paint directly onto the raw canvas, emphasizing both the flatness of the painting and the physical actuality of the support.
Carrying this technique still further, Frankenthaler thins her pigment with large amounts of turpentine so that they soak directly through the unprimed cloth and stains it. The resultant image no longer lies on top of the picture plane but is embedded within; the transparent mat colors of varying intensity modulate from light to dark without creating any illusion that they exist in a space other than that of the woven textural surface. Frankenthaler also adopted Pollock’s practice of painting with the canvas stretched out on the floor, allowing the artist to be “in” the picture, work from all four sides, and produce an image seen from above. She has always delighted in in the way paint behaves on paper. The freshness, directness and potency added to her dramatic use of color, line and space.
In the early 1960s Frankenthaler switched from oils to acrylics, with which she could achieve a watercolor effect by thinning the paint even further. She experimented with the use of sponges, heavier brushes, thicker globs of paint, etc. She influenced a whole generation of color-field painters, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.