Long-time Darien, Conn., resident Helen Frankenthaler spent her life as a painter of contradictions. The daughter of New York State Supreme Court Justice Alfred Frankenthaler and his wife Martha Lowenstein, she was born on December 12, 1928 in New York City. Her parents encouraged her talent from a young age and she was educated in progressive, experimental schools. However, Frankenthaler did not immerse herself in the growing avant-garde culture until early adulthood. After losing her father to cancer at age eleven, she entered a difficult period which ended when she was fifteen. It was then that she enrolled in the Dalton School where she studied under the great Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo. She completed her undergraduate work at Bennington College in Vermont where she studied with Paul Freeley.
After graduating with her B.A. in 1949, she returned to New York City set on expanding her influence in the art world. A year later she organized an exhibition for Bennington alumnae artists in New York. It was at this exhibition that Frankenthaler met Clement Greenberg who introduced her to prominent artists like Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Adolph Gottlieb. It was Gottlieb who selected her work for inclusion in his Fifteen Unknowns exhibit and, in 1951, Frankenthaler was given her first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Her experimentation in the realm of avant-garde Abstract Expressionism began after seeing an exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s work. Frankenthaler pioneered the technique of staining unprimed canvas with oil paints and her unique style differed from the layered look of Pollock’s pieces.
In 1952, after a trip to Nova Scotia, Frankenthaler painted what is considered her first major work in which she pioneered her soak-stain technique. Painted on canvas laid out on the floor, Mountains and Sea was created by using thinned oil paint applied with window wipers, sponges, and charcoal outlines. The following year, she exhibited Mountains and Sea at her second solo exhibition and it was over the course of this exhibition that she met Morris Lewis and Kenneth Noland. Together, Frankenthaler, Lewis, and Noland would reinvigorate the Color Field Movement.
Critics expounded on Frankenthaler’s attention to color in her paintings, while she insisted that her main focus is the drawing. Many credit her with expanding the boundaries of cubism and she often referred to herself as a Cubist painter. The paradoxes of her life as a painter continued as she gained notoriety internationally. Against advice from marketers, Frankenthaler refrained from the movement from large to small canvas work, despite the lack of purchasers for larger pieces. Bias against women artists made her art more difficult to sell, particularly in European markets. In the genre of Abstract Expressionism, women’s art was often viewed as overly feminine and concerned with visual continuity as opposed to subject and context. Often mistaken for non-representational, Frankenthaler’s work was based on real or imagined landscapes. Because so much of her work was rooted in nature, she complicated the stigma that she was a “feminine” artist. Frankenthaler long insisted that it was her wrist that gave her work its signature style, thus emphasizing the Abstract Expressionist notion that the artist’s hand must be visible in the work. As she explained, “Being the person I was and am, exposed to the things I have been exposed to, I could only make my painting with the methods—and with the wrist—I have.”
Throughout her extensive career she exhibited at such prestigious museums as the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her art has traveled all over the United States and around the world. She was one of only four American painters presented at the Venice Biennale in 1966. In the late 1960s Frankenthaler began experimenting with alternative media and embraced printmaking, woodcuts, and lithographs. She continued experimenting with different media including clay and steel sculpture and has even designed sets and costumes for England’s Royal Ballet.
She was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Council for the Arts, and the National Academy of Design as well as an honorary member of The Royal Scottish Academy. She received numerous awards including the 1976 Art and Humanities Award from Yale University, the 1989 Connecticut Arts Award, the 1994 Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement from the College Art Association, and the 2001 National Medal of the Arts. She received honorary doctorates from numerous colleges and universities including Smith College, Amherst College, New York University, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Hartford.
In 2008 the Knoedler Gallery in New York City honored Frankenthaler with an retrospective entitled Frankenthaler at Eighty: Six Decades. Prices for her work are among the highest of any female artists and she is widely considered to have had the longest, most productive, and most successful career of any woman artist. Some of her most notable works include Mountains and Sea (1952), May 26, Backwards (1961), Canyon (1965), Savage Breeze (1974), Desert Pass (1976), and Essence Mulberry (1977).
Helen Frankenthaler called Connecticut home from the early 1970s onward, maintaining her primary studio in Darien. She died on December 27, 2011 after battling a long illness.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.