Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928 New York, NY – d. 2011 Darien, CT) was a major American painter and printmaker who played an instrumental role in the transition of Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s to the Color Field paintings of the 1960s. In addition to the large-scale soak-stain paintings for which she is known, Frankenthaler experimented with different media including ceramics, sculpture, tapestry, and printmaking.
Frankenthaler was born and raised in New York City. She attended the Dalton School where she studied art under Mexican muralist painter Rufino Tamayo and went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree at Bennington College, where she studied painting under Paul Feeley. In 1949, following her graduation from Bennington, Frankenthaler returned to New York and studied privately with Hans Hofmann, later continuing her education at the Art Students League.
Early in her career, Frankenthaler gained critical attention when, in 1950, Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting for the exhibition Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. She then had her first solo exhibition in 1951 at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York. By 1959, Frankenthaler was exhibiting internationally and in 1960, her first museum retrospective was held at the Jewish Museum in New York City.
Frankenthaler is known for her influential breakthrough for American abstraction with her Mountains and Sea work in 1952. She used a “stain” painting technique, in which she poured thinned paint onto raw, unprimed canvas laid on the floor. This allowed her to work from all sides to create spots of translucent color.
Frankenthaler was also significant to the mid-twentieth century “print renaissance” for American abstract painters. In 1961, Frankenthaler began making prints with the lithographic workshop Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), and in 1976, she expanded her printmaking to incorporate woodcuts, collaborating with Kenneth Tyler. She painted directly onto the woodblocks and made maquettes for her works, frequently incorporating not only dozens of colors but multiple woodblocks, a process so time-consuming and complex that she generally devoted several years to one series. A skilled draughtsman and colorist, Frankenthaler’s prints and works on paper widely range from portraits to landscapes, large-scale to intimate, and more.
Frankenthaler’s work has been the subject of major exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Jewish Museum, New York. Her work is included in major public collections, among them the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, Austria; Tate Gallery, London, UK; and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.