Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

Helen Frankenthaler at work from the Ernst Haas Estate Portaits.

Helen Frankenthaler died last week.  She was, they say, the first, even before Morris Louis, to pour paint on unprimed canvas in great watery washes.  In the late 50s when this was happening she was 30 or so, a time when one is completely free and experimental.  All the training is done, there are few of the expectations that come with fame and age, rules are all of a sudden irrelevant. 

Frankenthaler's work was part of an explosion of American abstraction in the 1950s and 60s and formed my own way of seeing.  By time I was reading Harold Rosenberg's The Tradition of the New in the very early 70s – my then bible for everything, Frankenthaler, Twombly, Rauschenberg were washing away de Kooning, Pollock and Franz Kline who had just preceded them.  This new unprimed abstraction seemed more romantic, more minimal, astoundingly beautiful – it wasn't all about manly force, sturm und drang. Even now, looking back at it all, it appears more lyrical and even in the sweep of the body, above, more like handwriting.  Above all, Frankenthaler's work, no matter how simple the image, never implies a rush of action, instead the marks of her actions are slow and thoughtful. 

Helen Frankenthaler. Other generations, 1957. oil on canvas 174.7 (h) x 177.9 (w) cm signed and dated lower right, red oil, "Frankenthaler/ '57" National Gallery of Australia 1973.330

Stephanie Whitepainting