To ease the challenge of beginning a new piece, Frankenthaler often gave herself prompts—questions that would spark a composition’s direction. “Sometimes, especially at night, I will see a whole painting in my mind and I’ll jot down notes on how it looks and often use the notes in the studio later,” she told Brown. “I tend to give myself challenges that I see in my mind’s eye: What would happen if? And then I ‘write it down’ on the canvas.”
She went on to explain the impetus for New York Bamboo (1957), a large-scale painting that is uncharacteristically monochromatic. The raw, bone-colored canvas is activated by spills of gray ranging from ethereal and silvery to dense and ashen. “I thought, supposing I were to paint this picture only in black and leave half the painting empty? Would it work? And I went about doing just that,” Frankenthaler explained. “Experiment and discovery.”
Often prompts were straightforward, inspired by a painting that grabbed her: “When I saw the Titian in Boston, The Rape of Europa (1562), it knocked me out. So I made my version in the painting that I called Europa 1 (1957),” she recalled to Brown. Nature, too, offered initial inspiration: “When I am in pursuit of ‘a place to go’ from where I am, I often go back to nature, the figure, or still-life in order to trigger a leap into the unknown.”
While these devices offered a gateway into new work, Frankenthaler also emphasized the importance of letting them go once the painting process began. “I can set up an experiment for myself that deals only with the corners, center, or edges of the canvas—with contours or lines—but once the painting is completed, I might have reworked the entire original experiment,” she explained.
“As I develop a particular painting, I depart from a concept and reach instead into the demands of the canvas before me,” she continued. “What’s coming through is telling me I must go elsewhere. So while I might give the opening direction, the painting, as it progresses through my mind and body, determines its own journey to completion.…The artist has to have a dialogue with what is being created.”