There was something ethereal about the best of Helen Frankenthaler’s work, perhaps because her paintings often seemed to float ecstatically just under the surface on which they were painted. She died today, at the age of 83, after a long and distinguished career and a life lived at the center of the New York social and artistic world. She was one of the best of the second generation of abstract painters in the United States, with a deeply personal vision that reconciled abstraction with the lighter, finer and more poetic emotions. Her work was profoundly untroubled, lyrical and unapologetically beautiful.
Frankenthaler had a powerful impact on the painters who would later be known as the Washington Color School. By pouring paint thinned with turpentine directly onto unprimed canvass, she created large swatches of color that felt as permeable and liquid as the background in a watercolor. Paintings such as the 1952 “Mountains and Sea” helped shift the basic techniques of abstraction away from gesture and drama, to something more Zen-like, quietly subsisting swaths and ribbons of color that seemed content to coexist without tension on the canvass. The organic quality of the color, the frequent suggestion of a horizon-line, and the watery nature of the results, which mimicked the haziness of what the eye sees when surveying large vistas, suggested the painter’s close affinity with landscape.
She was born to a prominent father, New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler, and she lived a life of privilege, studying at the Dalton School and then Bennington College. She was married to the pivotal abstract painter Robert Motherwell from 1958 to 1971 and had an affair with the critic Clement Greenberg, a passionate advocate of abstraction in the middle of the last century.
As with other artists whose work seems placid on the surface, there were doubts about the depth of her achievement. But there was no doubt about the pleasure it gave. After the Sturm und Drang of the first generation of abstraction, Frankenthaler widened the range of acceptable ideas and techniques, creating space for softer, more nuanced, more reflective visions. She proved it was possible to remove ego from abstraction, without abandoning it altogether.