By GRACE GLUECK
NY Times Published: December 27, 2011
Helen Frankenthaler, the lyrically abstract painter whose technique of staining pigment into raw canvas helped shape an influential art movement in the mid-20th century, and who became one of the most admired artists of her generation, died on Tuesday at her home in Darien, Conn. She was 83.
Her longtime assistant, Maureen St. Onge, said Ms. Frankenthaler died after a long illness but gave no other details.
Known as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Ms. Frankenthaler was married during the movement’s heyday to the painter Robert Motherwell, a leading first-generation member of the group. But she departed from the first generation’s romantic search for the “sublime” to pursue her own path.
Refining a technique, developed by Jackson Pollock, of pouring pigment directly onto canvas laid on the floor, Ms. Frankenthaler, heavily influencing the colorists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, developed a method of painting best known as Color Field — although Clement Greenberg, the critic most identified with it, called it Post-Painterly Abstraction. Where Pollock had used enamel that rested on raw canvas like skin, Ms. Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it.
Her staining method emphasized the flat surface over illusory depth, and it called attention to the very nature of paint on canvas, a concern of artists and critics at the time. It also brought a new open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism.
She more or less stumbled on her stain technique, she said, first using it in creating “Mountains and Sea” (1952). Produced on her return to New York from a trip to Nova Scotia, the painting is a light-struck, diaphanous evocation of hills, rocks and water. Its delicate balance of drawing and painting, fresh washes of color (predominantly blues and pinks) and breakthrough technique have made it one of her best-known works.
“The landscapes were in my arms as I did it,” Ms. Frankenthaler told an interviewer. “I didn’t realize all that I was doing. I was trying to get at something — I didn’t know what until it was manifest.”
She later described the seemingly unfinished painting — which is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington — as “looking to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”
Unlike many of her painter colleagues at the time, Ms. Frankenthaler, born in New York City on Dec. 12, 1928, came from a prosperous Manhattan family. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and the former Martha Lowenstein, a German immigrant. Helen, their youngest, was interested in art from early childhood, when she would dribble nail polish into a sink full of water to watch the color flow.
After graduation from the Dalton School, where she studied art with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, she entered Bennington College in 1946. There the painter Paul Feeley, a thoroughgoing taskmaster, taught her “everything I know about Cubism,” she said. The intellectual atmosphere at Bennington was heady, with instructors like Kenneth Burke, Erich Fromm and Ralph Ellison setting the pace.
As a self-described “saddle-shoed girl a year out of Bennington,” Ms. Frankenthaler made her way into the burgeoning New York art world with a boost from Mr. Greenberg, whom she met in 1950 and with whom she had a five-year relationship. Through him she met crucial players like David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Franz Kline.
In 1951, with Mr. Greenberg’s prompting, she jointed the new Tibor de Nagy gallery, run by the ebullient aesthete John B. Myers, and had her first solo show there that year. She spent summers visiting museums in Europe, pursuing an interest in quattrocento and old master painting.
Her marriage to Mr. Motherwell in 1958 gave the couple an art-world aura. Like her, he came from a well-to-do family, and “the golden couple,” as they were known in the cash-poor and backbiting art world of the time, spent several leisurely months honeymooning in Spain and France.
In Manhattan, they removed themselves from the downtown scene and established themselves in a house on East 94th Street, where they developed a reputation for lavish entertaining. The British sculptor Anthony Caro recalled a dinner party they gave for him and his wife on their first trip to New York, in 1959. It was attended by some 100 guests, and he was seated between David Smith and the actress Hedy Lamarr.
“Helen loved to entertain,” said Anne Freedman, former president of Knoedler & Company, Ms. Frankenthaler’s dealer until its recent closing. “She enjoyed feeding people and engaging in lively conversation. And she liked to dance. In fact, you could see it in her movements as she worked on her paintings.”
Ms. Frankenthaler’s passion for dancing was more than fulfilled in 1985 when, at a White House dinner to honor the Prince and Princess of Wales, she was partnered with a fast stepper who had been twirling the princess.
“I’d waited a lifetime for a dance like this,” she wrote in a 1997 Op-Ed article for The New York Times. “He was great!”
His name meant nothing to her until, on returning to her New York studio, she showed her assistant and a friend his card. “John Travolta,” it read.
Despite the early acknowledgment of Ms. Frankenthaler’s achievement by Mr. Greenberg and by her fellow artists, wider recognition took some time. Her first major museum show, a retrospective of her 1950s work with a catalog by the critic and poet Frank O’Hara, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, was at the Jewish Museum in 1960. But she became better known to the art-going public after a major retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969.
Although Ms. Frankenthaler rarely discussed the sources of her abstract imagery, it reflected her impressions of landscape, her meditations on personal experience and the pleasures of dealing with paint. Visually diverse, her paintings were never produced in “serial” themes like those of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors or her Color Field colleagues like Noland and Louis. She looked on each of her works as a separate exploration.
But “Mountains and Sea” did establish many of the traits that have informed her art from the beginning, the art historian E. A. Carmean Jr. suggested. In the catalog for his 1989-90 Frankenthaler retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, he cited the color washes, the dialogue between drawing and painting, the seemingly raw, unfinished look, and the “general theme of place” as characteristic of her work.
Besides her paintings, Ms. Frankenthaler is known for her inventive lithographs, etchings and screen prints she produced since 1961, but critics have suggested that her woodcuts have made the most original contribution to printmaking.
In making her first woodcut, “East and Beyond,” in 1973, Ms. Frankenthaler wanted to make the grainy, unforgiving wood block receptive to the vibrant color and organic, amorphous forms of her own painting. By dint of trial and error, with technical help from printmaking studios, she succeeded.
For “East and Beyond,” which depicts a radiant open space above a graceful mountainlike divide, she used a jigsaw to cut separate shapes, then printed the whole by a specially devised method to eliminate the white lines between them when put together. The result was a taut but fluid composition so refreshingly removed from traditional woodblock technique that it has had a deep influence on the medium ever since. “East and Beyond” became to contemporary printmaking in the 1970s what Ms. Frankenthaler’s paint staining in “Mountains and Sea” had been to the development of Color Field painting 20 years earlier.
In 1972, Ms. Frankenthaler made a less successful foray into sculpture, spending two weeks at Mr. Caro’s London studio. With no experience in the medium but aided by a skilled assistant, she welded together found steel parts in a way that evoked the work of David Smith.
Although she enjoyed the experience, she did not repeat it. Knoedler gave the work its first public showing in 2006.
Critics have not unanimously praised Ms. Frankenthaler’s art. Some have seen it as thin in substance, uncontrolled in method, too sweet in color and too “poetic.” But it has been far more apt to garner admirers like the critic Barbara Rose, who wrote in 1972 of Ms. Frankenthaler’s gift for “the freedom, spontaneity, openness and complexity of an image, not exclusively of the studio or the mind, but explicitly and intimately tied to nature and human emotions.”
Ms. Frankenthaler and Mr. Motherwell were divorced in 1971. In 1994 she married Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., an investment banker who had headed the Export-Import Bank during the Ford administration. Besides her husband, her survivors include two stepdaughters, Jeannie Motherwell and Lise Motherwell, and six nieces and nephews. Her two sisters, Gloria Ross Bookman and Marjorie Iseman, died before her.
In 1999, she and Mr. DuBrul bought a house in Darien, on Long Island Sound. Water, sky and their shifting light are often reflected in her later imagery.
As the years passed, her paintings seemed to make more direct references to the visible world. But they sometimes harked back to the more spontaneous, exuberant and less referential work of her earlier career.
There is “no formula,” she said in an interview in The New York Times in 2003. “There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go.”
She never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970s. “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue,” she was quoted as saying in John Gruen’s book “The Party’s Over Now” (1972). “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”