Women in Art: Helen Frankenthaler

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Helen Frankenthaler, Elberta, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 97 inches. Private Collection

I’ve always loved Helen Frankenthaler’s paintings. Something about their colors drew me in, the way that many of her images recalled landscapes, while remaining completely abstract. They reminded me of the pleasure—and innocence—that came with pure moments of visuality, moments that occurred frequently to me in childhood, less often after experiences lost their directness and began to be mediated through layers of allusion and reference. There was a time when Orion did not come trailing classical allusions. Call it artifice. Call it formal education, or becoming part of a society. In any case, there was a time when the horizon had no name, and the world unfurled in sensations—green, yes, but also sweet, vegetal, the smell of this summer and the summer before, when I could still count those summers on one, or at most two, hands.

tumblr_lwx3rzEonH1qdr6jto1_1280Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 262.9 x 284.5 cm (103 1/2 x 112 in.). National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), 2004.129.1

The paintings I loved came attached to a name. I knew they had a maker. It had never occurred to me to look up Frankenthaler’s biography until I sat down to write about her.

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Gordon Parks, Portrait of Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, 1956. Photo shoot for Life magazine.

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to find that we share a geographical connection, via the Upper East Side. The daughter of a New York State Supreme Court judge, she grew up on the Upper East Side and went to the Dalton School. Most nice days–and some not-so-nice ones–I walk my dog past the Dalton School on our way to Central Park. Imagine my surprise when I learned that she studied painting at Dalton with Rufino Tamayo. I found pictures from a 1956 Life magazine shoot of Frankenthaler in her studio at E. 94th and Third–shared, it seems, with her then-husband Robert Motherwell. Later, she seems to have moved her studio south, to the east 80s. A People magazine article from 1978 described Frankenthaler as “living alone in a brownstone on E. 94th Street.” These biographical details interest me only because they indicate that our orbits overlap–in space, if not time–and there is a kind of tenderness in knowing that the consciousness that produced that body of work also traveled through these streets and spaces.


One of my favorite photographs of Frankenthaler was taken by Ernst Haas in 1969. It is part of a series of photographs that Haas shot in Frankenthaler’s studio. In these photographs, she paints, she answers the phone, she drinks a cup of coffee (or tea). They are prosaic, very different from the glamorous 1956 photoshoot that she did with Parks. With her hair pulled back, in a dark sweater and jeans, she looks very young, and quite beautiful. But in the photographs where she is working, her beauty becomes secondary. It recedes. She moves with sureness and confidence. In this photograph, the hands are the point–art is labor, art is work. A painting begins with a physical act. Haas catches the paint in the moment of impact, when it meets the canvas. Material meets material. At this point, the paint is heavy, thick. Frankenthaler will transform it, somehow, make it shimmering and gossamer, as if it were purely optical, an afterimage of something seen, and lost.


Kinfolk_Web2016_HelenFrankenthaler_03-681x1024Ernst Haas, Helen Frankenthaler at work in her studio, 1969

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