Painter took art in new directions

Helen Frankenthaler, a New York artist whose bursts of color achieved by pouring thinned paint onto canvas from coffee cans helped point art in fresh directions after the initial post-World War II explosion of Abstract Expressionism, has died. She was 83.

Frankenthaler died Tuesday after a long, unspecified illness at her home in Darien, Conn., her family announced.

In 1952, the 23-year-old Frankenthaler hit upon her “soak stain” technique, achieving some of the vibrancy, lightness and pliancy of watercolor by thinning down acrylic paint and pouring it on a large, unprimed canvas spread on the floor of her Manhattan studio.


“Mountains and Sea,” her breakthrough in pink, blue and green, set a style that critics -- although not universally -- have applauded for its lyricism and luminous use of color. Frankenthaler’s stain technique influenced others such as Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, giving rise to the Color Field movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Frankenthaler was born Dec. 12, 1928, and grew up amid prestige and comfort on New York’s Park Avenue, the youngest of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court justice, and his wife, Martha. Attending the progressive Dalton School, she was taught by the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. She set out to be a painter after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1949.

Among those taking note was critic Clement Greenberg, a leading advocate of Abstract Expressionism, with whom Frankenthaler was romantically involved until the mid-1950s. Through him, she met the New York School of painters, including Jackson Pollock, whose drip-painting technique of laying a canvas on the floor and aggressively raining paint upon it would help inspire her own far more judicious and deliberate way of painting by pouring.

In 1958, Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, a leading light from the first generation of New York Abstract Expressionists. They were divorced after 13 years. In 1994, she married investment banker Stephen M. DuBrul Jr.

An early prominent forum was her mid-1960s inclusion in “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” a touring survey curated by Greenberg that also featured Noland, Sam Francis, Willem de Kooning and Ellsworth Kelly.

Reviewing Frankenthaler’s 1967 solo show at one of L.A.'s top venues, the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Times critic William Wilson hailed her work as “a primary wellspring in the development of stained color painting.... There is nothing easy about her large canvases.... Their jarringly factual color and sensitively considered edges finally resolve in works of awesome integrity.” Major retrospectives ensued at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969 and the Museum of Modern Art in 1989.

Opinions have varied, however. Current Times art critic Christopher Knight has described Frankenthaler as a “minor, formalist artist,” and her influential “Mountains and Sea” as a “slight innovation.”

In the 1970s, she began to draw fresh recognition for her printmaking. She studied traditional woodblock printmaking in Japan, and applied her own abstract sensibilities to works such as a series inspired by “The Tale of Genji” from the 11th century.

Frankenthaler maintained a reserved stance in public, never cultivating feminist-icon status as a lone female on the famously masculine New York scene of the 1950s. Being a woman “was unique and at the same time it was very little of an issue,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1970. “I had something to say in terms of painting and went about doing it.... What has made it work, or what makes certain paintings successful or not, has to do with my being a painter and a thinking, feeling person, more than my sex, color, height, origin.”

When Frankenthaler’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective traveled to the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1990, Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic noted that her “mystique seems to be partly based on staying out of the limelight. Among art world insiders, she is almost as well known for living a privileged, quiet life on Manhattan’s Upper East Side as for her lyrical abstract canvases.”

Frankenthaler did take a highly public stance during the late 1980s “culture wars” that eventually led to deep budget cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and a ban on grants to individual artists that still persists. At the time, she was a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts, which advises the NEA’s chairman.

In a 1989 commentary for the New York Times, she wrote that, while “censorship and government interference in the directions and standards of art are dangerous and not part of the democratic process,” controversial grants to Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and others reflected a trend in which the NEA was supporting work “of increasingly dubious quality. Is the council, once a helping hand, now beginning to spawn an art monster? Do we lose art ... in the guise of endorsing experimentation?”

Frankenthaler, who received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002, is survived by her husband, four stepchildren and six nephews and nieces.