Frankenthaler, Helen (1928–2011) By Robbins, Christa Noel
Helen Frankenthaler was an American painter known for her large, abstract stain paintings. Associated with the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, Frankenthaler is thought to have shown the way out of a quickly ossifying New York School “style” by developing a technique that emphasized large areas of color over gestural and expressionistic brushwork. As an alternative to Expressionism, Frankenthaler soaked thinned-out paint into raw duck canvas, a technique she first applied in her 1952 painting Mountains and Sea. In staining paint directly onto the canvas, Frankenthaler demonstrated that modernist painting need not be beholden to Clement Greenberg’s anti-illusionistic concept of “flatness,” which Greenberg developed in theorizing medium specificity (the idea that the materials used to create an artwork determine its appropriate form). Frankenthaler re-introduced an illusive quality into her paintings not through representational devices, but through the atmospheric effects that result when applying large fields of color to unprimed canvas. Medium specificity is maintained, however, in that canvas and paint are still “laid bare,” but a reductive emphasis on flatness is replaced with what Greenberg would come to call “opticality.” As one of the few female painters during the postwar period to gain commercial and critical recognition, Frankenthaler was an inspiration for several generations of female artists that followed.