Home ArtsAr(t)chives Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract climates

Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract climates

by Lorenza Mezzapelle March 27, 2021
Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract climates

A deep-dive into the artist’s influential role on the abstract movement

A practicing artist for over 60 years, Helen Frankenthaler’s collection of works spanned many key moments and transformations in abstract art. The American abstract expressionist has actually been recognized for her contributions to postwar abstract painting.

Frankenthaler has been attributed with the influential shift of abstract expressionism to colour field painting, alongside the likes of other notable figures such as Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt.

Colour field painting — a genre characterized by compositions containing large, simple fields of colour — emerged in the 1950s and marked a pivotal moment in modern art, marked by the separation of emotion and religion from painterly depictions.

In addition to Frankenthaler’s effect on the transition into a new artistic era, she gained notoriety for further developing the technique of colour-staining. The technique had initially been developed by Jackson Pollock, who earned acclaim for pouring paint and pigments directly onto a canvas.

Opposite Pollock’s bombastic technique, Frankenthaler applied thin washes of paint to unprimed canvases, giving them an almost whimsical appearance. A key example of this technique can be observed in Mountains and Sea (1952), which consists of organic strokes of vibrant blue, green, and pink hues against a pale yellow background.

Contrary to Mountains and Sea, her work Shippan Point: Twilight (1980) features wider, harsher, and darker brushstrokes. The use of black overlayed on turquoise and blue hues gives the viewer the same sense as being by the water at night. And rightly so; a quick Google search about Shippan Points yields hundreds of photos of a Connecticut peninsula featuring a pier, dock, and the deep blues of the Atlantic ocean rising up against the shoreline.

Despite not being a direct rendition of mountains and the sea, or of a dock by the ocean, Frankenthaler’s work somehow manages to elicit the same feeling of looking at a landscape. Vibrant, yet serene and somewhat chaotic, yet dainty, the artist’s canvases capture the calming effects that colour and simplicity can have on the mind, as well as the unpredictability of the elements surrounding us.

“My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates,” said Frankenthaler, in regards to her work. “They’re not nature per se, but a feeling.”


Graphic by Taylor Reddam.

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