Helen Frankenthaler was an abstract expressionist painter and major contributor to the history of postwar American art. With an exhibition career spanning for over six decades, she continued to create vital and ever-changing new work across several generations. She began showing her large-scale paintings in museums and galleries in the early 1950s. She was included in the 1964 exhibition Post-Painterly Abstraction curated by Clement Greenberg, which introduced a newer generation of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field.
Helen was born in New York City in 1928. Her father was Alfred Frankenthaler, a respected New York State Supreme Court judge. Helen grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a fortunate upbringing in a cultured and progressive Jewish intellectual family that encouraged their three daughters to aim for professional careers.
Frankenthaler studied under muralist Rufino Tamayo at the Dalton School and later studied at Bennington College in Vermont. While at Bennington, her mentor was Paul Feeley, who is credited with developing her understanding of pictorial composition and influencing her early cubist style. After graduating in 1949, she studied privately with Wallace Harrison and Hans Hofmann. She met Clement Greenberg in 1950 and they had a relationship for five years. Later, she married Robert Motherwell in 1958. They divorced in 1971, but during their relationship they were known as “the golden couple” for their mutual wealthy upbringing and their lavish entertaining.
Frankenthaler’s style is difficult to broadly characterize. As an active artist for nearly sixty years, she experienced many phases and stylistic evolutions. Her work is identified by the use of fluid shapes, abstract masses, and lyrical gestures. She put much value in spontaneity, saying “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.”
In 1960, Frankenthaler’s work was labeled under the term Color Field painting. This refers to large areas, or fields, of a single color on the canvas. This style involves hues that are similar in tone or intensity, as well as large formats with simple compositions. The Color Field artists differentiated themselves from the Abstract Expressionists because they eliminated the emotional, mythical, or religious content of the earlier generations.