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The art of color: Helen Frankenthaler.

Looking carefully

For many artists, the aim of painting is to create a convincing picture of three-dimensional reality on a two dimensional picture surface. Other artists understand painting differently: not as a window looking onto a real or imaginary scene, but as a flat surface that may suggest real objects and places through simplification and abstraction of recognizable forms, or that may be completely non-representational in its abstraction. While many artists tell stories through the use of representational imagery in their art, some artists choose to evoke a mood or a memory through more abstract means such as line, shape and color.

Helen Frankenthaler is a painter who uses rich color in large scale abstract paintings. She pours, drips, sponges and squeegees paint directly onto raw, unprimed canvas. The canvas is spread out on the floor of the studio so that she can work on it from all sides in a process that resembles a graceful choreographed dance. The paint soaks into the canvas so that the canvas and the color merge. The effect of Helen Frankenthaler's "stain paintings" is of a painting made of pure color rather than pigment adhered to a surface.

In Pistachio, Frankenthaler's colors flow together and in some places merge. Subtle shifts in value make some areas of the painting appear to glow from within. The use of unusual color combinations and the juxtaposition of complementary colors add to the intensity of Frankenthaler's paintings. In Pistachio she uses the three secondary colors orange, green and violet. Additional areas of red intensify the effect of the other colors.

Rather than creating an illusion of realistic depth, Frankenthaler uses color, and an occasional drawn line, to convey a sense of vast spaces and flowing movement. At the same time, the viewer is constantly aware that these are two-dimensional canvas surfaces impregnated with color.

Frankenthaler titles her paintings after they are completed. The titles are suggested to her by a predominant color, or by an image that appears in the painting, or by memories that the painting evokes. In 1970, the year before she painted Pistachio, she traveled to Morocco. The warm colors of this painting are the colors of pistachio nuts, and suggest the warm climate and bright colors of Morocco.

Color Field Painting

A pioneering abstract artist during the 1950's and 1960's, Helen Frankenthaler is known for introducing a new lyricism into Abstract Expressionism through her technique of staining canvas with pure color. She admired the abstract paintings of Jack son Pollock, and was inspired by his dancelike process of splattering and dripping paint onto canvas spread on the floor of his studio. She began to paint in this way with Mountains and Sea in 1952, the year after she was introduced to Pollock's work, yet her technique differs significantly from his. Pollock built up a richly textured surface of pigment and other added materials on his canvases, but Frankenthaler wanted to infuse her color into her canvas. As an innovator in this type of abstract painting, Frankenthaler was an influential figure in the development of Color Field painting, a form of abstraction more concerned with color than with the gestural brushwork used by artists such as Pollock.

Mountains and Sea, Helen Frankenthaler's first stain painting, was painted after the artist returned from a trip to Novia Scotia. She has said, "I came back (from Nova Scotia) and did Mountains and Sea, and I know the landscapes were in my arms as I did it." Her early stain paintings are loose and calligraphic, with large areas of visible canvas. They are painted with oil paint thinned with turpentine. The haloes around the colored forms are caused by the turpentine bleeding into the canvas. In later paintings, such as Pistachio, she used acrylic paints that could be thinned with water, and the haloes disappeared. These paintings are composed of larger, simpler areas of color that flow into each other and flood the entire canvas. The colors are darker and richer, with more modulation of values. There is no sense of paint as substance, but simply as color.

Key Concepts

* Abstract paintings can tell us about an artist's feelings and memories without containing any recognizable images. Some abstract painters work mostly with line, and others are more interested in color.

* Artists often convey a mood, a feeling or a sense of place through color.

* Color can be applied by pouring, dripping and sponging paint onto a surface for effects that are different from those achieved using a paintbrush.

* The use of complementary colors or unusual color combinations can intensify the appearance of colors.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler was born in 1928 into the prosperous family of a New York Supreme Court judge. She grew up in New York City near the Museum of Modern Art, where she often went for inspiration. Her parents encouraged her interest in art, and sent her to schools that fostered her development as an artist. She studied with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo at the Dalton School and with the American Cubist painter Paul Feeley at Bennington College. To please her family, she enrolled at Columbia University to study art history as a graduate student, but she really wanted to paint, and soon devoted herself to painting full time.

At an exhibition that she organized of the work of Bennington College alumni, Frankenthaler met the influential art critic Clement Greenberg. He introduced her to the circle of Abstract Expressionist artists working in New York. After Greenberg took her to an exhibition of Jackson Pollock's work and then to his home and studio, Frankenthaler began making her large-scale stain paintings, working as Pollock did on canvas spread on the floor.

Helen Frankenthaler is known as a "second generation" Abstract Expressionist painter. She achieved international recognition in the late 1950's and the 1960's, and is still highly acclaimed today. In 1989, The Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective exhibition of her work. Frankenthaler is a key figure in the development of Color Field Painting, and her stain paintings have been tremendously influential for younger abstract painters.

Suggested Activities


* Explore ways that different color combinations work together to give different effects. Have students cut out simple shapes of colored paper in the primary and secondary colors. Students can work alone or in groups to glue these colored shapes onto backgrounds of different colors. Discuss ways that colors appear to change when placed against warmer or cooler colors, and the effect of complementary colors on each other when seen together. Do all of the shapes of a single color appear to be the same size when seen against different backgrounds? Do some of them look brighter?

* Show students examples of abstract painting. Discuss different ways that artists use color. How are color and shape used to suggest movement? Why do some abstract paintings look dynamic and full of energy, while others look serene? Ask students how these paintings make them feel. Using watercolor or tempera, have students paint abstract images that show a feeling or a mood. Then discuss how the students have used color and shape to convey feelings.

* Using fabric paints or cold water dyes, students can "stain paint" pieces of fabric or T-shirts. Use brushes or sponges to apply paints or dye to fabric. Discuss what happens as colors overlap and run together, and how the color appears to become part of the fabric rather than sitting on the surface of the fabric. This project would work especially well outdoors.


* Show students examples of the work of Helen Frankenthaler and other Color Field painters, and discuss ways that they have used color to stain canvas. How do the colors interact? Are colors separated by defined edges, or do they run together? Discuss techniques for applying color besides the use of a paintbrush, such as pouring, dripping and sponging. Have students experiment with these techniques. Students can use temperas or acrylics thinned with water to stain unprimed canvas, or watercolors to stain blotter paper.

* Helen Frankenthaler's Pistachio is composed of the three secondary colors with the addition of red. Discuss the use of various color combinations with students, and the way that warm colors seem to move forward, while cool colors seem to recede. What is the effect of the warm red areas in Pistachio? What would happen if the artist had used a cool blue instead? Have students use paint or torn colored paper to create three abstract color compositions that use the three secondary colors with the addition of one other color. Compare these compositions, with particular attention to the spatial relationships and forms of movement suggested by various color combinations.

* Using examples of abstract painting, discuss ways that color and abstract form can be used to express a range of emotions. Ask students to think of experiences they have had or places they have been, and how they made them feel. Have students make non-representational paintings, using watercolor or tempera, that convey these feelings through shape and color. In a discussion of the finished paintings, ask students to consider how others in the class have conveyed feelings through abstraction in their paintings. Such a discussion will be most successful if focused on the feelings suggested rather than the particular experiences that elicited them.



Elderfield, John. Frankenthaler. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987.

Rose, Barbara. Frankenthaler. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1970.

Rose, Barbara. American Art Since woo. New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1975.

Sandler, Irving. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.


Frankenthaler: Toward a New Climate. Films, Inc., 1977. 16 mm, color, 28 min. From The Originals: Women in Art Series, this film shows Frankenthaler at work and discusses the development of her techniques and ideas about painting.

Melanie Herzog is a visiting Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin.
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning
Author:Herzog, Melanie
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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