Helen FrankenthalerAfter the Second World War, the amalgamation of European artists who had fled the conflict there and congregated in New York began to have a profound effect on art in the U.S., both through their own work and their influence on the more impressionable younger artists of this country. Gradually, their infatuation with surrealism melted into Abstract Expressionism and what we now call the New York School. The art scene in New York during the late forties and early fifties was a wildly creative and expressive festival of daring experimentation with all manner of paint and painting. It was also very much a boldly male celebration, macho in style, colour, and techniques.
Into this virtual whirlpool of men splashing around lots and lots of paint stepped a young woman fresh out of Bennington College in Vermont, still in her early 20s, married to one of the stronger movers and shakers of Abstract Expressionism, who not only rose above the work of her husband but staked claim to being the dominant female figure in the New York School at the time. Her name was Helen Frankenthaler. She was married to Robert Motherwell, a west coast immigrant to the New York scene whose bold, black and white colour field paintings (juxtaposed with subtle secondary shades) looked nothing like hers. Frankenthaler's soak and stain painting techniques on raw canvas broke new ground in bringing softer, more feminine qualities of colour and technique to Abstract Expressionism. It became her trademark as she established herself as a leader in the unique use of flowing areas of subtle colour.
Still in her 20's, Frankenthaler's work began to surpass in popularity many of her male counterparts. She continued to produce and innovate all through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and today, at 69, she is still the predominant female Abstract Expressionist as her current work clearly demonstrates in a show which opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C in 1999. This show was comprised of ten large paintings done in the last twenty years and presents a somewhat darker side of her artistic personality. The hues are deeper, richer, more varied with higher, stronger contrasts than her earlier work. Even though the colours are darker, there is nothing sad or sombre in their visual effect. They are intense, dramatic, vibrant, and strong without loosing the inherently feminine quality that made her work so divergent in the fifties.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
2 July 1998