When visiting NMWA’s third floor collection galleries, don’t miss Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Spiritualist, 1973. The color-soaked canvas promises an overwhelming sensual experience of pinks and oranges. Flat space inundated with salmon pink both discombobulates and transports the viewer into an otherworldly realm. As a primary example of Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique, it characterizes the genius of this Abstract Expressionist painter.
Born in 1928 in New York, Frankenthaler benefited early on from an education and social life that emphasized the arts. She earned her BA from Vermont’s Bennington College, known for its active studio art faculty. In the 1950s, her relationship with noted art critic Clement Greenberg allowed her access to the stars of the New York art world, including luminaries such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Her contact with these Abstract Expressionists would inspire her own freewheeling use of non-representational color and line.
It was in 1952 that Frankenthaler made the choices that revolutionized her work and reverberated across the art world. Her painting Mountains and Sea, 1952, introduced the world to her soak-stain technique, the process by which paint was thinned with turpentine and then poured directly onto an unprimed canvas. The physicality of her work—often requiring her to carry cans of paint as she slowly pours color onto her large canvases, stretched out on the floor—places her in the tradition of action painters like Pollock. Yet her approach to Abstract Expressionism offers a personal atmosphere where the painterly tradition is both respected and challenged. The rich texture and materiality of the paint is emphasized at the same time that conventional application is denied. Chance and control blend together in Frankenthaler’s hands, which freely manipulate the viscosity of paint and absorbent possibilities of canvas. What results is a new kind of two-dimensional plane, where the grain of the canvas and its qualities are just as pertinent as those of the poured paint.
-Rebecca Park is editorial intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.