How Helen Frankenthaler Pioneered a New Form of Abstract Expressionism

In 1956, the Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler was photographed by Gordon Parks for a spread in LIFE magazine. Lovers of Abstract Expressionism will recall that several years earlier, in 1949, Jackson Pollock had been photographed for the magazine, appearing alongside an article lede that read: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

Beyond introducing Pollock and the young movement to a popular audience, the 1949 LIFE spread also effectively indicated what an Abstract Expressionist should look like. Pollock is depicted standing before one of his drip paintings in a pigment-spattered jacket, smoking a cigarette and wearing a defiant frown.

The message is clear: Abstract Expressionism, which hoped to connect more directly to a primal sense of artistic purpose, is for tough, complicated men to pour their expressive force into large paintings with urgent, even violent gestures. (After 1952, the gestural impulse in Abstract Expressionism would lead to the classification Action Painting.)

By contrast, in her LIFE shoot, Frankenthaler sits calmly but assuredly with her legs politely folded under her in a button-up shirt, tied into a knot over a shin-length skirt. She is perched on one of her paintings, laid horizontally on the floor. Where Pollock is positioned to dominate his single, hung painting, Frankenthaler is surrounded in every direction by more of her paintings, engulfed by soft swaths of paint.

Given the social climate of the 1950s, the differences between the images of Frankenthaler and those of Pollock couldn’t read as more starkly gendered. And although those differences may be instructive to us now, Frankenthaler was notoriously frosty about bringing gender into the artistic equation. Asked about it in a 1989 interview for the New York Times, she lamented: “There are three subjects I don’t like discussing: my former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.”

By the time of her first marriage to the abstract painter and art theorist Robert Motherwell in 1958, Frankenthaler was already an established figure in American art. The development she made in her art in the early ’50s, when she evolved from what she self-deprecatingly referred to as her early “college Cubism” phase to her mature style, cemented her as one of the most influential artists of the mid-century. Those developments also coincided with her relationship to the critic Clement Greenberg, after they met at an exhibition opening in 1950.

Greenberg had argued that the most modern paintings were abstract, two-dimensional, and without any sort of literary or narrative content. He believed that modern painting should embrace the two-dimensionality of the support and not attempt to subvert it illusionistically, like figurative art. He went further to say that any allusion to the outside world would hinder the raw emotional or psychological impact of the forms and colors.

For this reason, he was an early advocate of Pollock, whose drip paintings had challenged the idea of representation to a new degree through the non-descriptive pouring of paint onto a horizontal canvas.

By 1952, however, when Greenberg was looking for a next step beyond the gestural application of Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler showed him a new kind of picture she had made through a pouring method she had developed—which she dubbed the “soak-stain.” Frankenthaler would thin oil paints with turpentine (later, she would thin acrylics with water) and pour them directly onto a flat canvas in broad patches, allowing the liquid to soak into the fibers of the support.

The resulting image remained as two-dimensional as its support, its pigments in rather than on the canvas. Mountains and Sea (1952), perhaps her most famous work, exemplifies this approach. Frankenthaler finished it off with some abstract gestures from a charcoal pencil.  

The painting would become a game-changer. When Greenberg brought the abstract painters Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis to Frankenthaler’s studio in 1953, they seized upon both her technique and the broad, flat expanses of color she created. Greenberg was quick to group the trio with Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still as artists working in this mode and to highlight a second impulse and aesthetic in Abstract Expressionism—Color Field Painting—of which Frankenthaler would be a leading exponent for over a decade.

Though the 1950s and 1960s may have been the height of Frankenthaler’s popularity, she remained one of the most influential artists in the U.S. until her death in 2011. While her creativity would also find outlets in sculpture and set design, her experimentation in paintings and prints secured her legacy as one of the 20th century’s great colorists and a pioneer of the pouring technique.

Without her, it becomes difficult to envision such aesthetically divergent works as the vivid, three-dimensional poured sculptures of Lynda Benglis or the Rorschach-blot-like images of Kara Walker.

Frankenthaler’s allusions to locations and to natural formations such as land, sea, and sky in their titles resisted Greenberg’s strict “no-outside-content” dictum and loomed large for generations of future abstract landscape painters. In an echo of that other great colorist Henri Matisse, who allegedly once claimed “I don’t paint women; I paint pictures,” Frankenthaler would say of her natural influences: “What concerns me when I work is not whether the picture is a landscape…or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is, did I make a beautiful picture?”

For that 1956 shoot for LIFE magazine, Parks photographed Frankenthaler surrounded by beautiful pictures she had made. And while she would choose to limit her conversations about “women artists,” Frankenthaler certainly knew of Pollock’s LIFE magazine spread and couldn’t have missed the significance of her own: She had become an indispensable figure at the overwhelmingly male table of American art.

Frankenthaler’s Hommage à M.L. (1962)—a tribute to one of the few prominent female painters in the Cubist camp, Marie Laurencin—suggests that though the erstwhile “college Cubist” Frankenthaler had brought her own innovations to the table, she rightly recognized herself as belonging to a trajectory of women artists making breakthroughs in overwhelmingly male-dominated circles.


—Jon Mann