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After ‘Mountains and Sea’: Frankenthaler 1956–1959

June 6, 1998 – October 4, 1998

In the fall of 1952, at the age of 23, Helen Frankenthaler made her legendary painting Mountains and Sea, the first work she created using her celebrated soak-stain technique. Thinning down her paint with turpentine or kerosene, the artist developed a medium that would seep into and through the weave of unprimed canvas. The resulting stain, which often left a surrounding aura, gives a sense of perpetual movement to a work while simultaneously joining image and ground.

Titled after the seaside cliffs Frankenthaler had visited in Nova Scotia the previous summer, Mountains and Sea is one of her many abstractions─including Autumn Farm and Acres (both 1959)─that evoke memories of landscapes. The organic qualities of Frankenthaler's painting, however, have as much to do with the properties of the artist's materials as with any actual reference to nature. Frankenthaler, who insists that she is not an Action painter, makes the fluidity of the paint─ not the motion of the painter, as in Jackson Pollock's drip technique─primary to the animation of her work.

While Mountains and Sea reveals a debt to Frankenthaler's earlier influences, including Vasily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, and Arshile Gorky, its use of unprimed canvas and the artist's union of painting and drawing were triggered by an encounter with Pollock's black-and-white paintings at an exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1951. Pollock's rejection of easel painting also inspired Frankenthaler's more liberated process. Pouring liquid pigment onto bare canvas spread out on the floor, Frankenthaler created breathing landscapes of shifting, almost transparent, color zones. These atmospheric color washes, actually embedded in the cotton fibers, achieve an optical sense of depth while avoiding perspectival illusionism and maintaining the flatness of the canvas.

After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont, Frankenthaler made her debut in New York and was soon recognized as a talented new member of the group later known as the second-generation New York School. Forming a friendship with the influential critic Clement Greenberg, she became immersed in the downtown art community and was introduced to artists of the first-generation New York School, including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Pollock and David Smith, among others. While many of her colleagues were following in the footsteps of Willem de Kooning, Frankenthaler broke from the group, sensing "more possibilities in the Pollock vocabulary." "You could become a de Kooning disciple," she believed, "but you could depart from Pollock."

Frankenthaler's watery flow of pigment punctuated with controlled bursts of color and large areas of exposed canvas contradicted the fashion at the time for heavily impastoed canvases painted with vigorous gesture. Frankenthaler was unique in translating into her own language Pollock's radical allover method, adding color to the play of flatness and depth. As artist Morris Louis declared, Frankenthaler "was a bridge between Pollock and what was possible." Frankenthaler's impact on Louis and Kenneth Noland─who have cited the significance that seeing Mountains and Sea in Frankenthaler's studio in 1953 had on their art─ has placed her as a link between Abstract Expressionism and Color-field painting.

While Frankenthaler's works from the mid-1950s are more densely painted, in 1956 her paintings opened up again, regaining the airiness characteristic of earlier years. Paintings such as Eden (1956) and Nude (1958) show Frankenthaler's tendency to leave large portions of canvas uncovered, giving the light-filled negative spaces in her work equal pictorial weight with the painted areas, a practice adopted by Louis and Noland. By not working in series, Frankenthaler allows each painting its own identity. The diversity of her work, evident even in the brief period represented by the select group exhibited, demonstrates her experimental approach, as well as the varied experiences and impressions that influenced her paintings, ranging from personal biography to the history of art.

Helen Frankenthaler

Mountains and sea, 1952

Oil on unprimed canvas

220 x 297.8 cm

Collection of the artist

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