Helen Frankenthaler, one of the earliest and most influential contributors to the Abstract Expressionist movement, has died at the age of 83.
In an interview with the The New York Times, Frankenthaler’s longtime assistant, Maureen St. Onge, said that she had been ill for some time, but did not go into details about the cause of death. A statement from Jeanne Collins & Associates, the PR firm that represented the artist, placed Frankenthaler among “the great American artists of the 20th century,” describing her as “one of the foremost colorists of our time.”
Born in 1928, Frankenthaler was educated at the Dalton School and Bennington College. Receiving instruction from Rufino Tamayo, Paul Feeley, and, briefly, Hans Hofmann, Frankenthaler emerged early on as a legitimate heir to the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. With an eye for color that few could match, Frankenthaler possessed a passion for experimentation that led her into other media, including ceramics and printmaking.
A key moment in Frankenthaler's career took place when she began thinning her paints with turpentine so that they would be absorbed into the fabric of the canvas. Drawing attention to the the materiality and flatness of the medium, her “stain” technique would affirm the priorities of Modernism established by Clement Greenberg, using “the methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.” Greenberg, with whom Frankenthaler was involved romantically for several years, was an early champion of Frankenthaler's work; he would include her in a seminal show he curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, titled “Post-Painterly Abstraction.”
Like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Frankenthaler knew what it was like to be a great painter who was also married to a great painter. Critics and historians tend to regard Abstract Expressionism as a boy’s club, generally treating whatever signs of femininity as exceptional, and describing the movement’s women contributors as somehow aberrant and minor.
Granted, there are features of Frankenthaler's work that are decidedly feminine. She frequently opted for pinks, blues, and floral greens, and the colors in her stain paintings are characterized by a sense of delicacy and transience. Of course, none of this came from an interest in being a “lady painter.” The New York Times points out that Frankenthaler “never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970s.” Her contributions to AbEx and Color Field movements were driven by something much more personal: a desire to explore the relationships between color and form at their most elemental level. Frankenthaler sought to make new, expressive, moving work. She succeeded.