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Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist

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1 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
Frankenthaler Mixing Paint Photograph, 1964 1. Frankenthaler Mixing Paint Photograph, 1964 This photograph of Helen Frankenthaler in her New York City studio was taken when she was 36 years old. It shows her standing in front of “Small’s Paradise” (image #10), mixing paint in empty coffee cans. She diluted her oil paints, and later her acrylic paints, to approximate the look of transparent watercolors. In doing so, the paint was more runny and fluid, and required her to be very decisive and direct when she worked by planning exactly where she would pour her diluted paints onto a canvas that she would tack down on the floor. She applied paint to an unprimed canvas which allowed the diluted color to soak into and stain the fibers of the fabric and become a part of the canvas itself. This process resulted in areas of color with soft, fuzzy edges that created an aura or halo around the colors. This effect was most obvious in the areas of unpainted canvas around the colored shapes. Working in this manner, Frankenthaler devised the revolutionary and original technique of “stain painting” for which she became well-known. ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

2 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
Applying paint to a canvas 1969 2. Frankenthaler Applying Paint to a Canvas Photograph, 1969 In this photograph we see Frankenthaler’s work methods. Unlike most artists who worked with a canvas on an easel, Frankenthaler copied the methods of action painter, Jackson Pollock. She spread her canvas out on the floor and poured, dripped or dragged paint directly onto the large piece of unprimed canvas. In this photograph, we can get a sense of the large scale of her paintings (they were often measured in feet!) as we observe Frankenthaler stretched out over a canvas, guiding poured paint into its final shape. Working in this manner gave her a different spatial relationship to the painting because she could not see the whole canvas in front of her—instead, she was literally on top of it. By working on the floor, Frankenthaler could work on the piece from all four sides, use broad gestures to pour, drip, or drag large pools of color, and she would let her subconscious “guide her arm” in order to create a mood, feeling or a “sense of place” within her composition. This style of active art was typical of Abstract Expressionism where artists focused on associative concepts [related to ideas, images, and learned associations] rather than on narrative subjects [visual representation of an event or of a story]. Frankenthaler created unified compositions by actively and carefully balancing the colors she used as well as the placement of the shapes of color that she poured as she created her spontaneous, yet controlled paintings. Why did Frankenthaler choose to paint like this? By spreading her canvas out on the floor and pouring, dripping, or dragging paint directly onto the large piece of unprimed canvas, Frankenthaler could actively and carefully balance her colors and the placement of the shapes of color that she poured in order to create spontaneous, yet controlled paintings. ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

3 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
Mountains and Sea 1952, oil on canvas, 7’ 2-5/8” x 9’ 9-1/2”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 3. Mountains and Sea 1952, oil on canvas, 7’ 2-5/8” x 9’ 9-1/2”, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. This painting is historically Frankenthaler’s most famous work. It is known more for the technique she used to create it and for the influence it had on other artists rather than for its individual composition or visual impact. At the time this painting was created, Frankenthaler was just 24 years old, working in New York City, and she was influenced by the Abstract Expressionist artists of the late 1940s and early 1950s. These artists stressed the unimportance of realistic subject or sense of three-dimensional space; they focused, instead, on expressing a feeling or mood. The inspiration and title for this painting came from a trip that Frankenthaler made to Nova Scotia. The painting was not a visual representation of any specific landscape but was, instead, a painting of Frankenthaler’s memories and feelings as well as the colors that the northern coastline inspired. She frequently tried to paint a “sense of place,” but not the place itself. The peaks of the mountains and the blue waters of the sea mentioned in the title are suggested, but are not obvious. All of the shapes are abstracted to mere contour lines or areas of color, two elements that Frankenthaler often used to create expression. What at first appears to be a random placement of colors in varying degrees of intensity we begin to see is actually a well-balanced and unified composition. Frankenthaler’s paints were so thinned down that they appear to have the transparency of watercolors and her signature painting process is very visible with its drips, pools, and stains of colored paint on the canvas. While the colors and lines are distributed asymmetrically, their visual weight is well balanced. The overall consistency of the repeated color values, paint textures, and the clustering of the denser images in the center all work together to unify her composition. There are equal amounts of positive, painted images [the field] as well as negative space of the unpainted canvas [the ground]. The final painting comprises many of the techniques that Frankenthaler used in future works: washes of color, lines throughout the painting, a sense of balance and equality among all the positive and negative shapes created in the painted and unpainted areas, and a unifying theme of a kind of place that she had experienced, all created by her signature “stain painting” technique. Fun Fact: Upon seeing this work in Frankenthaler’s studio, artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis were both influenced by her new use of transparent color and they each launched their own innovations in what later became known as the Color Field Painting movement of the 1960s. Are the shapes created by the lines and colors realistic? No, there are many contour lines and abstract shapes created with various shades of blues, reds, grays, and yellows. ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

4 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
4. Jacob’s Ladder 1957, oil on canvas, 9’ 5-3/8” x 6’ 9-7/8”, Museum of Modern Art, New York City In her works of the 1950s, Frankenthaler thinned her paints, simplified her colors, and left areas of unprimed canvas “open,” exposed, and unpainted. Her compositions were balanced, containing equally weighted, small, repeating elements. This painting has many of those characteristics. There are two areas to this composition: the top “airy” section has obviously thinned paint areas while the lower, denser portion is a checkerboard filled with small repeating color patches. The abstract, symmetrical composition is bisected by a linear structure in the center—the ladder-like motif—with blue lines that establish the shape. Blue lines also outline several circular shapes that appear on both sides of the ladder. Note how Frankenthaler used a variety of lines in this painting: they range from drawn, fine contour lines, to painted outlines, and various lines have been formed by dripping paint. The visual weight of the painting is concentrated toward the bottom half which contains just four “open” spaces of unpainted canvas that serve to break up the colored areas of the central motif. The symmetrical balance of shapes is repeated in the outlined circles that are placed on either side of the ladder motif. Besides balancing the composition, the repetition of shapes adds unity to the work. Cool blues and greens contrast with warm reds and yellow-oranges, all are balanced, and the composition is unified through color. The top half of the composition is full of empty “open”, unpainted canvas, yet bright red pools of color and the repetition of the red, as a thinned down series of pinkish color areas, helps to convey some sense of excitement. These upper areas of warm reds are balanced by the large centrally placed outline of a cool, blue circle of dripped paint. Shapes are created with lines and colors and all remain both abstract and indecipherable. Nevertheless, these abstract shapes, along with their colors, provoke a wide range of associations for the viewer. Frankenthaler had her own personal associations, yet we as viewers may see a variety of images that are created by our own associations . It is human nature to “look for something” in these abstract paintings just as we “see” images when we look at the clouds in the sky. Find areas of open canvas where no paint has been applied. All the off-white shapes are actually unpainted canvas. Jacob’s Ladder 1957, oil on canvas, 9’ 5-3/8” x 6’ 9-7/8”, Museum of Modern Art, New York City ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

5 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
5. Before the Caves 1958, oil on canvas, 8’ 6-3/8” x 8’ 6-3/8”, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California This composition is based on Frankenthaler’s memories of the trip she took with new husband, Robert Motherwell, to visit Altamira on Spain’s northern coast where they saw Paleolithic art in the local caves. The abstracted orange shape in the center of this painting resembles the shape of a bison that can be seen among those cave paintings. Frankenthaler’s process of actively applying paint to the canvas is very evident in the looping, swirling and dripping style of lines that she used. We see a broad variety of lines, from wide to thin and feathery to bold. Some lines outline shapes while other varied lines stand alone. Colored areas fill the prominent center and they frame the edges of the composition on three sides. Unpainted areas appear on either side of the bison shape and at the top. This is a very balanced arrangement in terms of both colored areas and empty canvas, a typical balancing act that Frankenthaler successfully achieved in her paintings. By framing the empty canvas with colors, she created negative shapes of unpainted areas, such as the one on the right. The shape on the left was similarly formed and the negative space was reinforced with contour lines. A similar use of contour lines can be seen around the central bison shape and the bright, warm orange color draws our attention as the brownish-black contour lines used to outline his body reinforce his shape. By leaving empty space on either side, Frankenthaler isolated this bright shape in the center of the composition. She unified all parts of the composition through repetitions of both colors and lines. The warm orange and red, the neutral browns, and the cooler, bluish lilac colors are all repeated on both sides of the canvas which forms a symmetrically balanced composition. Fun Fact: Note the number 173 at the top right in red and again near the upper right edge in blue. This was the address number of her husband’s (Robert Motherwell) house. Can you describe the different kinds of lines used here? A looping, swirling and dripping style of lines is used here to form a variety of lines that range from wide to thin and feathery to bold. Some lines outline shapes while other lines stand alone. Before the Caves 1958, oil on canvas, 8’ 6-3/8” x 8’ 6-3/8”, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

6 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
Mother Goose Melody 1959. oil on canvas, 6’ 10” x 8’ 8”, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia 6. Mother Goose Melody 1959. oil on canvas, 6’ 10” x 8’ 8”, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia This painting has an obvious asymmetrical balance. The left side of the canvas contains a trio of elongated, abstract brown shapes that are framed by straight brown lines. Balancing this on the right side are looping curves of red contour lines that form a goose-like figure with a bright red beak. The unpainted canvas within these red lines has no paint color itself, but this area is framed by other colored shapes on both the left and right sides. The brightness of the red adds visual weight to the negative space of unpainted canvas on the right and it all visually balances with the three brown shapes on the left. Thus, the composition is asymmetrically balanced with different elements of equal visual weight on either side of the central axis. The feeling of a nursery might be suggested by the Mother Goose shape. Perhaps the three brown shapes that are framed by two blue colored areas on either side might call to mind books on a nursery shelf. Note the geometric shape of the circle within a square that is located above the brown shapes. Could this possibly represent a clock? Even Frankenthaler admitted that the composition has a nursery rhyme feeling to it. She would often decide upon a title once a painting was complete and sometimes, she would ask others to suggest possible titles for her. When describing this work, Frankenthaler said that she intended it to be about “left and right.” This is evident from the asymmetrical distribution of shapes that balance the left with the right. These shapes are further unified by the continuous broad line of golden yellow color across the bottom of the canvas that binds the lower halves together, side to side. Frankenthaler repeated a small spot of the same golden yellow near the top right area of the canvas that serves to unify the bottom with the top of the composition. The work is thus unified by the repetition of colors, by the line of color that runs across the bottom of the canvas, and by its nursery rhyme theme. How is this painting asymmetrically balanced? Although the shapes and colors on the left side and the right side as well as at the top and bottom are all different, together they still visually balance in this composition. ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

7 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
7. Swan Lake 1 1961, oil on canvas, 5’ 11” x 9’ 7”, Private collection With this painting, Frankenthaler began a period of intense activity that involved a series of works resembling Rorschach-like blots of paint. When creating this painting, she poured blue paint onto the canvas and then pulled, daubed, and painted the paint with automatic movements of free expression, only to discover that she had created the shape of a swan in the process. The swan shape reminded her of the hidden picture puzzles of her youth and so the title derives from the swan’s white, unpainted canvas shape created by the surrounding blue areas of color. The cool blue lake area is nearly framed by bright brown lines that form a square; darker brown shapes, in turn, then frame either side of this square and the whole is surrounded by the perimeter of unpainted white canvas. Although the area within the brown frame itself contains an asymmetrical distribution of shapes and colors, this brown square shape, along with the two darker brown companion shapes on either side, and the surrounding edges of white, unpainted canvas all together create a symmetrically balanced composition. Frankenthaler combined asymmetrically-distributed elements with the symmetrical placements of other elements in order to successfully create a visually balanced whole. The repetition of similar colors and shapes, the cluster of shapes in the center, and the composition’s theme together combine and give this work a sense of unity. The cluster of shapes in the center of the brown-lined square prompted Frankenthaler to say that she liked the “looking in quality of it,” as though the square formed a window-like frame through which the viewer could look. Fun Fact: This work was damaged in a fire in 1976 but was painstakingly restored with Frankenthaler’s ongoing advice. How is the swan shape created? The swan shape was accidently created as Frankenthaler poured, pulled, daubed, and painted blue paint around an area of unpainted canvas. The swan was created in the negative space of unpainted canvas where the blue paint did not go. Swan Lake 1 1961, oil on canvas, 5’ 11” x 9’ 7”, Private collection ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

8 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
8. Yellow Caterpillar 1961, oil on canvas, 7’ 9 1/4” x 10’, Private collection This painting reflects Frankenthaler’s desire to add “airiness” to her compositions. She felt that the void of the empty, unpainted canvas made the applied colors more vivid by comparison. This is a good example of that concept, as well as a great display of the aura or halo which her technique of “stain painting” created. The auras are most evident around the yellow and brown shapes where the thinned oil paint seeped into the fibers of the canvas. All the shapes are abstracted and clustered toward the center of the composition. Their overall similar appearance and the clustering of shapes provide a sense of unity. Frankenthaler’s title adds a theme as well as a clue to the subject matter. The wide yellow band of the caterpillar is a large expanse of a warm color. Its size, length, and color draw our attention because warm colors tend to advance towards the viewer. To balance such a long warm-colored line, Frankenthaler added a cool blue line just below it that runs parallel to the “yellow caterpillar” shape. Other shapes are placed asymmetrically, yet all balance because their visual weight created by color, size, and placement all balance within the composition. Brown shapes appear to be somewhat geometric; the two beneath the yellow caterpillar resemble circles (one with an unpainted square inside it) while the top brown shape appears to be rectangular. The other shapes are more linear in nature. Frankenthaler took great care to balance the opposites of warm and cool colors, curved and straight lines, and geometric versus organic shapes in this work. Where do you think Frankenthaler got the title for this work? The wavy, horizontal yellow shape resembles a yellow caterpillar. Yellow Caterpillar 1961, oil on canvas, 7’ 9 1’4” x 10’ Private collection ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

9 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
9. The Bay 1963, acrylic on canvas, 6’ 8-3/4” x 6’ 9-3/4”, The Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit This painting marks the beginning of a new direction, a new medium, and new ideas that dominated Frankenthaler’s work through the1960s. In 1962, she began to work with acrylic paints instead of oils. The acrylics flattened and sharpened her spaces so that field [painted areas] and ground [unpainted canvas] could co-exist as equal elements. She moved away from the thinned oil-based paints that had left halos and auras in earlier paintings, replacing them with clear bright pools of acrylic color that absorbed less quickly and resulted in bolder, simplified compositions. Frankenthaler began painting the blue area of this painting and then stopped to give the piece its title. She realized the blue shape reminded her of Provincetown Bay, which she could see from her studio window. She evidently came upon the title by accident only after a pool of color caused her to associate it with a place she had once experienced. She did not want the work to represent that particular bay, however, so she gave the painting a more generic title. Rather than a specific place, Frankenthaler instead wanted to create the “theme of a bay and the feeling of water.” The pool of blue color seems to have reached its own shape spontaneously, yet it was actually made by the specific gestures that Frankenthaler made as she applied the paint to create the final shape. This reflects the paradox of her style which was spontaneous, yet controlled by her precise movements. She would add each element based on what she felt was needed in order to balance and complete the work. The cool blue of the bay area is not one solid blue; there are horizontal applications of many blues—perhaps as many as nine different blues—that gives the shape its billowing, surging effect. Frankenthaler initially added the bright green area around the bay and felt the work was done. But, she always questioned whether any of her works was ever really “finished,” and, she later came back and added the gray band along the bottom as well as the central, bright orange dot that complements the cool blue color of the bay shape. The horizontal band of gray was a typical unifying element that Frankenthaler sometimes used across the bottom of her canvases. The added small spot of bright warm color orange also visually balanced the larger cool area of blue. However, it is the dominance of the blue that gives this painting an overall sense of unity and simplicity that Frankenthaler originally sought in this composition. What balances the large dominant area of blue in this painting? The broad gray band across the bottom parallels the shaded horizontal bands that run across the dominant blue shape. The bright warm, orange spot asymmetrically balances against the larger, cool blue area. The Bay 1963, acrylic on canvas, 6’ 8-3/4” x 6’ 9-3/4”, The Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, Michigan ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

10 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
10. Small’s Paradise 1964, acrylic on canvas, 8’ 4” x 7’ 9-5/8”, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. This painting is one of a series of five, with similar formats and styles. They all reflect the Color Field Painting movement of the 1960s with their large areas of colored shapes. Frankenthaler’s opaque colors used in this symmetrical and abstract composition both evoke and reflect a positive mood. This painting, as well as the others in this series, is centrally and symmetrically balanced. We see shapes within shapes, which Frankenthaler referred to as the, “play on interiors.” The theme of a “place” appears in the title of many of her works, whether it was an exterior place or interior scene. Shapes enclosed by shapes are the basis of this work. Frankenthaler began with a red irregular pool of color in the center and then surrounded it with a pink square shape. Having this square shape enclose the irregular shape was a recurring motif that Frankenthaler had used before. In earlier works, Frankenthaler had enclosed her shapes with contour lines, such as the brown square surrounding the swans and blue lake shapes in the painting, “Swan Lake I” [image #7]. Frankenthaler balanced the bright, warm colored center with a cool yellow-green arch, dark green edges, and a cool blue band that crosses the bottom of the pink square. This long, horizontal linear blue band was another shape that Frankenthaler would frequently use to unify her compositions. The cool blue is balanced by two bright red pools of color along with a small pink band that connects them. The remaining area at the bottom is left unpainted and another small sliver of unpainted canvas appears at the very top. These unpainted, negative spaces both give the scene a floating appearance which adds to an overall feeling of bright, cheerful, and positive energy. Fun Fact: The title comes from the name of a Harlem jazz club that Frankenthaler often visited. How did Frankenthaler unify this composition? She symmetrically balanced the shapes and lines of this composition and she also balanced the use of contrasting warm and cool colors. Small’s Paradise 1964, acrylic on canvas, 8’ 4” x 7’ 9-5/8”, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C. ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

11 Helen Frankenthaler 1928 – American Abstract Expressionist
11. Nature Abhors a Vacuum 1973, acrylic on canvas, 8’ 7-1/2” x 9’ 4-1/2”, Private collection This painting is grand both in scale (over 9 feet square) and in visual impact. Frankenthaler organized the composition around huge sweeps of color that move horizontally across the surface. It is reminiscent of the flowing nature of rolling landscapes and her technique of flooding the canvas with paint reinforces that feeling of flow. The colors range from opaque to transparent and are interrupted by areas of irregularly-shaped, open, unpainted canvas. Frankenthaler called these open unpainted areas “air space.” A chevron-like crevice appears near the top and another slices across the bottom. These open, unpainted spaces fall into two distinct categories: there are the irregular shapes that have been left unpainted between colored areas and there are specific linear divisions. The specific linear divisions in this painting are akin to drawing with negative space as they were masked off with tape or with a piece of wood placed on the canvas which blocked the flow of paint over the masked or blocked area. Frankenthaler created these linear elements with tape or wood pieces first and then applied paint; they are a feature that appeared in many of her works during the 1970s. The other linear elements of unpainted canvas resemble Frankenthaler’s crevice/cable shapes that here separate the large warm orange area from the cool green colored shape at the top of the canvas. Note how the warm colors are mostly concentrated at the bottom of the canvas while the cool colors appear at the top. To maintain balance between the top and bottom, Frankenthaler used white lines as sharp divisions to section the canvas into horizontal bands. The large area of warm colors create the dominant color scheme that unifies the composition. To add variety and to connect the cool and warm colors of her work, Frankenthaler repeated a smaller version of the dominant color scheme again in the upper right which works to unify the composition through color repetition. Even the uniform distribution of the unpainted “open space” areas adds unity. Despite an asymmetrical distribution of colors, Frankenthaler managed to visually adjust the weights of all the elements into a balanced whole by using both the careful placement of complementary colors as well as the linear divisions that horizontally section the painting. What shape balances the dark green color in the upper left? The cool dark green is balanced by the warm colors in the lower portion of the painting; there is also a dark reddish shape of poured paint to the lower right that also seems to specifically balance with the dark green color in the upper left. Nature Abhors a Vacuum 1973, acrylic on canvas, 8’ 7-1/2” x 9’ 4-1/2”, Private collection ~Lake Oswego Art Literacy~

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