Color Field Pioneer
Influential abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler dies at 83
Helen Frankenthaler, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist who led a movement later known as Color Field painting, died at 83 on Tuesday at her home in Darien, Conn.
Building upon Jackson Pollock's technique of dripping paint onto canvases placed on the floor, Frankenthaler gained recognition early in her career for her unique process of pouring turpentine-thinned acrylics directly onto raw canvas, creating a staining effect that greatly influenced artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Nolan in the Washington Color School of the late 1950s.
Early works such as her acclaimed Mountains and Sea from 1952 are noted by critics for their break from Abstract Expressionism's active, painterly gestures towards a more personal exploration of color and form.
"Helen was truly a spectacular lady with great style and a fierce intelligence," recalled MFAH modern art curator Alison de Lima Greene. "I really admired her."
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston maintained a relationship with Frankenthaler since the early 1970s, when the museum acquired the artist's 1969 painting Blue Rail. The MFAH organized a survey of recent work in 1975 and hosted a major career retrospective in the mid-1980s.
Frankenthaler's work has been on regular rotation at the museum for decades, although no pieces are on display at present.
"She was in Houston for the retrospective we hosted in 1986," MFAH modern art curator Alison de Lima Greene told CultureMap. "Helen was truly a spectacular lady with great style and a fierce intelligence. I really admired her."
In 1998, the museum showed Frankenthaler's Tales of Genji — a series of paintings and woodcuts inspired by 11th-century Japanese literature. De Lima Greene said the artist donated a print "fresh out of the studio" in gratitude for the exhibit.
In 2004, Houston's Meredith Long & Company presented a collection of the artist's recent watercolors and other works on paper.
The daughter of a prominent judge, Frankenthaler was born in New York City in 1928 and studied at Bennington College. By the early 1950s, her work drew the attention of powerful modernist critic Clement Greenberg, who would introduce her to artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Franz Kline. Frankenthaler was married to abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell from 1958 to 1971.
She served on the National Council on the Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts from 1985 to 1992 and received the National Medal of Arts in 2001.
Frankenthaler is survived by her second husband, Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., an investment banker who served under the Ford administration.