Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler - Hope Spring
Hope Spring
Acrylic on canvas

37 x 22 inches

Signed lower right

Additional Work

Hope Spring

The best-known pioneer of stain painting, Helen Frankenthaler created translucent,
vibrant, fluid and color-saturated canvases that established her as a leader within the
New York School in the early 1950s. Much admired by the taste-making critic Clement
Greenberg, Frankenthaler’s experimentation with pouring and soaking her paint onto
unprimed canvas would influence the work of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland.
Frankenthaler enjoyed a long and productive career and in 1969 received a
retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As scholar John Elderfield has
noted, this exhibition prompted the artist’s reflection on her own work as well as
commentary from the critics. Hilton Kramer concluded that while Frankenthaler made a
great contribution to abstract painting with the staining technique, “ the real interest of
her works lies elsewhere…in the quality of its expression rather than the technical
means by which that expression is realized.”

In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s Frankenthaler’s style moved toward formal
simplicity and compositional restraint, leaving behind the more gestural, expressionistic
work of the 1950s. Elderfield characterizes these pictures as “unequivocally abstract,
and yet they represent in their geometry the refined and distilled essence of earlier
kinetic, imagist drawing.” (2) Frankenthaler experimented in several canvases, Hope
Springs included, with leaving an “irregularly framed interior space.” (3) Frankenthaler
achieves a new clarity in the work of this period through the reduction of formal
elements and the use of blank canvas as centerpiece. Here this central void is
populated with four distinct experiments in mark-making that range from organic stain to
linear stroke and even, near the center, a single circular dot.
In regard to this central void, the canvas becomes a field to be divided rather than an
arena for action, as with the more gestural aspect of Abstract Expressionism. Bare
canvas frequently serves as a compositional element, creating a blank area that draws
attention to its surrounding chromatic fields. Art historian Barbara Rose appreciates the
“grave monumentality” in these works. (4) Paintings from this period often express a
relationship to nature. The structured spaces of her canvases generate the sense of
asymmetrical balance found in nature, and her suggestive titles encourage our free
Frankenthaler’s careful design partly derives from her use of Cubist compositional
devices, such as the blocking out space with counterbalancing elements (a point E.A.
Carmean, Jr., the Director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, emphasizes in his
monograph on the artist). The artist herself explains the look of these paintings as the
result of dialogue between color shapes and drawing; she describes “well ordered
collisions…where shape and drawing become one.” (5) In this painterly approach, she
stands out among her contemporaries, creating a unique body of work that lies in
between the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and the restrained Color Field
approach of Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Mark Rothko.
Hope Springs was painted just two years after Frankenthaler’s first large retrospective,
at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibition was nothing short of a
revelation for many, and irreversibly solidified Frankenthaler’s reputation as an important
and innovative artist.
Over a career that spans six decades, Frankenthaler’s art has received great critical
acclaim, and has been noted for its painterly virtuosity and celebration of
experimentation. As the artist herself described: “I am an artist of paint, making
discoveries.”(6) Perhaps even more important than the artist’s technical innovations is
her unique sense of “place.” She invites the viewer into pictures that are themselves
environments—places where she has been, places she has dreamed of, and abstract
places of personal and artistic interests. Writing in response to a 1975 exhibition of the
artist’s work at André Emmerich Gallery, the art critic Hilton Kramer praised her ability to
conjure novel viewing experiences: “The paintings of Helen Frankenthaler occupy a distinctive place in the recent history of American abstract painting…We feel ourselves
in the presence of imaginary landscapes—landscapes distilled into chromatic essence.”
The luminosity of Frankenthaler’s paintings derives from her unusual “soak stain”
method. Frankenthaler’s ground-breaking and most well-known work, Mountains and
Sea (on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), from 1952, launched the
style of painting in the 1960s that would become known as Color Field painting. In this
work, she allowed thinner pigments to soak directly into the canvas. This staining
created a heightened tension between image and abstraction. The weave of the raw
canvas was visible within the painted forms, and, at the same time, the visibility of the
canvas beneath the painted surface negated the sense of illusion and depth. In this way,
Frankenthaler’s innovative device called attention to both the material and the nature of
the medium. The technique also generated a new range of liquid-like atmospheric In 1953, hearing about the painting from Clement Greenberg, the Washington artists
Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland made a special visit to New York to view it and were
stunned by the chromatic effects of the stained canvas. Noland recalled that it “showed
us a way to think about and use color.” (8) From 1952 onward, Frankenthaler would
regularly stain her canvases multiple times to achieve spatially complex, transparent
layers. In the 1970s, in particular, she adopted an increasingly wide variety of textures
of paint, such that the color often appears suspended within the viscous paint medium.
“Up close,” observed Thomas B. Hess, “you can see how [pigments] have been meshed
and folded, one into the other, for unnamable hues—strange bicolors, like the green-
orange iridescence of a scarab’s wing or the indigo-yellow of certain plums.” (9)
Frankenthaler’s mastery of paint reveals her training under influential and accomplished
instructors. She studied with Rufino Tamayo while at the Dalton School, New York, with
Paul Feeley (1910–66) at Bennington College, Vermont (1946–9), and privately with
Wallace Harrison in 1949 and Hans Hofmann in 1950. In that year she met Clement
Greenberg, and through him, became acquainted with Willem and Elaine de Kooning,
David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Barnett Newman and other members of the
New York School. In 1950 Adolph Gottlieb selected her painting Beach for inclusion in
the exhibition Fifteen Unknowns at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York. The following
November, Frankenthaler received her first solo exhibition, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. In
these several years after graduating from Bennington College in 1949, the artist took
advantage of New York’s thriving art scene, visiting museum exhibitions and fellow
artists’ gallery shows, and formed a number of lasting and deep friendships, including
with the poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. O’Hara authored the catalogue essay
for Frankenthaler’s first retrospective exhibition, at the Jewish Museum in 1960.
Like several of the exponents of Abstract Expressionism, she was concerned with the
forms and energies latent in nature. She often characterized herself as more interested
in the drawing of color than color itself, for in her draughtsman-like approach and “well
ordered collisions” of paint and drawing, she generated motion in her compositions. In
this painterly approach, she stands out among her contemporaries, creating a unique
body of work that lies in between the gestural abstraction of Jackson Pollock and the
restrained Color Field approach of Louis, Noland, and Mark Rothko.
From 1958 to 1971, Frankenthaler was married to fellow artist Robert Motherwell, and
the two maintained studios in New York and Provincetown. She also traveled
extensively, often with Clement Greenberg, and loosely derived inspiration from the
places she visited for the color palettes or moods of her paintings. Italy, France, Nova
Scotia, Majorca, Barcelona, Germany, the Netherlands, Arizona, and Provincetown all
proved inspirational to the artist. During her travels, she visited renowned art museums,
studying old masters, and later she created paintings inspired by artists' works in these
collections, ranging from Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya to Manet, Matisse, and even the
Japanese artist Hiroshige. Her paintings have also drawn comparisons to J.M.W.
Turner’s exquisite meditations on mid-winter sunsets and Frederic Edwin Church’s
Cotopaxi. (10)
Her artistic experimentation was not limited to painting; indeed, she explored pictorial
space in a broad variety of media, including painting on canvas and paper, printmaking,
sculpture, ceramics, and tapestry design. In the 1960s, Frankenthaler began to make
prints in the Universal Limited Art Editions workshop on Long Island, and also crafted earthenware plates at Bennington Pottery in Vermont, along with David Smith. She
reprised her interest in ceramics in the early-mid 1970s, when she executed a tile wall
commissioned for the North Central Bronx Hospital, New York. In 1972, during a burst
of new energy, Frankenthaler welded ten steel sculptures in the studio of her dear friend
Anthony Caro. That year she exhibited these sculptures as well as some works on
paper at André Emmerich Gallery in New York.

As her range of artistic activities expanded, so did her international and national
reputation. Frankenthaler has received numerous accolades, including prestigious
awards and honorary degrees from Harvard University; Yale University; Smith College; Moore College of Art, Philadelphia; Amherst College; New York University; and Brandeis University. Her works appear in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art,
New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta;
Museum of the 20th Century, Vienna; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Los Angeles
County Museum of Art; and numerous other public institutions.
1. Hilton Kramer cited in John Elderfield, Frankenthaler (New York: Abrams, 1989), 213.
2. Ibid., 203.
3. Ibid., 202.
4. Barbara Rose, Helen Frankenthaler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, [1975]), 98.
5. Quoted in E.A. Carmean, Jr., Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective (New
York: Abrams; Fort Worth, Texas: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1989), 7.
6. Quoted in Carmean, Jr., Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective, 12.
7. Hilton Kramer, “Art: Lyric Vein in Frankenthaler’s Paintings,” The New York Times,
15 November 1975, 21.
8. Quoted in Carmean, Jr., Helen Frankenthaler, 12.
9. Cited in John Elderfield, Frankenthaler (New York: Abrams, 1989), 304.
10. Most notably to Church by E.C. Goossen in “Helen Frankenthaler: Notes on Some
Recent Paintings,” Bennington Review (April 1978): 46, and to Turner by Michael
McKinnon, comp., The History of Western Art, sec. 31: Art of the ‘70s (London: Visual
Publications International, 1982).

Post War Inventory