Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
A painter best known for her groundbreaking painting “Mountains and Sea” (1952) which influenced a whole generation of abstract painters, Helen Frankenthaler has died at the age of 83 at her home in Darien, Connecticut.
One of the leading female artists of the 20th C., Frankenthaler is best remembered as an important influence on the Color Field movement and the artists associated with it, including Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.
A famous anecdote tells the story of when art critic Clement Greenberg brought Noland and Louis to Frankenthaler’s studio and the pair became excited over her soak-stain technique. The three artists were eventually associated with the Color Field movement that would emerge years later.
Frankenthaler was a native New Yorker who married leading Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell in the 1958, which placed the couple at the center of New York art world society. They later divorced in 1971.
Today, I reach out to New York-based critic and curator Karen Wilkin, who was a longtime friend of Frankenthaler, to provide a personal assessment of Frankenthaler’s legacy and what it meant:
For starters, it’s not an overstatement to say that she is the first painter who was female for whom no hyphenation or special pleading was required — nor was it desired by the artist herself. She was as good as the best of any of her peers and better than most of them, something that cannot be said of any woman who painted before Frankenthaler.
Over six decades she produced an enormous body of work in all media — paintings, prints, works on paper, sculpture — that expanded our notions of what abstraction could be — lyrical, playful. witty, somber, exuberant and more. And she was a wonderful, generous, open-spirited, loyal friend.
She was a perfectionist, meticulous, warm, oddly shy, on some occasions, and also hilariously funny. Someone we both knew once told Helen that she was “a lot of trouble, but worth it.” She could be very demanding but she asked nothing of anyone else that she didn’t ask, in spades, of herself.
I’m going to miss her a lot.
A number of sources have already published obituaries on Frankenthaler:
- “Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Painter Who Shaped a Movement, Dies at 83” (NY Times)
- “Abstract Painter Helen Frankenthaler Dies at 83” (San Francisco Chronicle/AP)
- “Helen Frankenthaler, Awesome Painter, Dead at 83” (Gawker) which I mention only because of it’s title