Helen Frankenthaler was overshadowed by a macho art scene. Now her work has come into its own, says Francesca Gavin
It is hard not to be seduced by Helen Frankenthaler's paintings. Her use of paint is notably different from that of her contemporaries – she treated oil almost like watercolour, putting her at the heart of the pioneering new wave of abstraction dubbed Colour Field painting.
During a 60-year career up to her death in 2011, she was relentless as an innovator, taking on Jackson Pollock's butch painterly experiments and boldly reinventing them. Even in a mid-career work, such as the spectacular Summer Angel (1984), there is a sense of an artist still chasing new forms of the abstract. Drawn from the highly respected collection of California winemakers Robert and Margrit Mondavi, this work is to be offered by Bonhams New York as part of the Post-War & Contemporary Art sale in May.
Frankenthaler always insisted her personal life was irrelevant when it came to examining her work, but there are certain factors that can be taken into consideration. She chose to avoid addressing her gender, for instance, never considering herself a feminist: "I don't resent being a female painter," she explained. "I don't exploit it. I paint." She had a privileged background, which certainly won her few favours among her struggling counterparts – but that privilege did mask personal tragedy: sure, her father was a judge on the New York State Supreme Court, but he had died when she was only 11. She went to elite prep school Dalton, then the liberal arts college Bennington College, where she met formidable art critic Clement Greenberg. The pair were in a relationship for five years, and he was a huge influence on the young artist – introducing her to the city's art scene, including Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Hans Hofmann, with whom she studied.
It was Pollock's art that had the biggest impact on Frankenthaler, in particular his method of dumping a canvas on the floor to pour paint on to it. "It was all there," she wrote later. "I wanted to live in this land. I had to live there, and master the language." But unwilling merely to repeat what she observed, Frankenthaler pioneered adaptations to Pollock's approach. She watered down oil paint with turpentine, pouring it onto canvases in a process she called "soak stain". This technique emphasised the flatness of the canvas, and colour in its pure form, rather than building layers of rough texture as the older generation had done.
Colour is central to everything Frankenthaler created. In a 1989 catalogue she noted, "Colour can be beautiful in terms of how it moves; yet it remains in place. If colour doesn't move in space, it is only decorative." One of her best-known works Mountains and Sea now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This work was painted when she was only 23, after a trip to Nova Scotia in 1952. There is nothing clear in this abstract, fluid image, but there are hints of the landscape implied by the title. This was to be a theme that ran through all her work: rather than the post-war existential angst and inner turmoil of the mostly male Greenwich Village painters, Frankenthaler presented a form of abstraction that was about nature and the colours that emerged in landscape. When Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis followed suit, a new school of abstraction – Colour Field painting – was born, and famously exhibited by Greenberg at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) when he curated the Post-Painterly Abstraction show of 1964.
Frankenthaler had, in 1958, married the equally affluent abstract painter Robert Motherwell, and they were together for 20 years. During this period, she had an important retrospective at the Whitney in 1969 and, artistically, moved from oil to acrylic, experimented with screen-printing and woodcuts, and successfully incorporated elements of drawing in her work. But even her lines had a basis in colour: "A line, colour, shapes, all do one thing for and within themselves, and yet do something else, in relation to everything that is going on with the four sides [of the canvas]. A line is a line, but it is a colour...". In the 1970s, she started working steadily with squeegees, which she used to apply broad, flat layers of paint.
Later in life, Frankenthaler received numerous awards, including the National Medal of the Arts in 2001, but felt she was out of favour due to her criticism of the art of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano in the late 1980s. At that time she was on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts just as funding for artists was being drastically cut by the government. Yet her later works have again received serious attention in recent years, following a big solo show at Gagosian Beverly Hills.
Certainly, her legacy remains vital. Aside from Frankenthaler's direct influence on the Colour Field painters, she is seen as an influence on the flatness of Andy Warhol's paintings, on the meditative aspect of conceptualism – and on the approaches to painting adopted by current artists as different as Lynda Benglis, Sterling Ruby and Jenny Saville. As Frankenthaler told the New York Times in 2003, "There is no formula. There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go."
Francesca Gavin is visual arts editor of Dazed & Confused, and art editor of Twin.
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