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Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler Works at the Gagosian Gallery

04/01/2013 02:08 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

"Mountains and Sea", 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc., on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.

"Mountains and Sea" 1952, Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc., on extended loan to the National Gallery
of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2013 Estate of HelenFrankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

It was 1950 when Helen Frankenthaler came back to New York after graduating from Bennington College. Frankenthaler set up a studio on East Twenty-First Street and wasted no time in stirring up the art world. She organized a show of Bennington alumnae artists where she met Clement Greenberg, one the most influential art critics of the era and embarked on a five-year relationship with him. Greenberg introduced her to the major figures in New York School of painters, including Jackson Pollock, whose drip-painting later inspired her 'painting by pouring'. 

Frankenthaler's early works are currently on view at Gagosian gallery through April 13th, 2013. The exhibition, titled “Painted on 21st Street: Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959”, is only the second exhibition ever in New York devoted to that decade in her career. The 29 works on view include her breakthrough painting “Mountains and Sea” that was said to change the course of abstract painting. 

"Eden", 1956,  "© 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS),

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.

© 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 

Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Frankenthaler painted "Mountains and Sea" when she was only 23, after returning to New York from a trip to Nova Scotia. This work has long been recognized as an icon of American art and as a milestone that changed Frankenthaler’s own work by means of new technique: she poured highly thinned oil paint from coffee cans directly onto the canvas, as if she were drawing with color. She was working directly on the floor - a technique developed by Jackson Pollock - and just kept going. She finished the painting at the same day. Later, she described the painting in an interview as “looking to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”

Staining became the basis of her art and inspired other artists later on. She also brought back glory to color and pioneered color-field-painting with Mountains and Sea’s pastoral colors—pinks and light greens and blues. This painting became her best-known, most influential work because of the way she used color and canvas in a whole new way.

The painting received little attention when it was shown the following year until painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland visited Frankenthaler's studio. Both found in Mountains and Sea a new direction for modern art, away from Abstract Expressionism and started to explore color field painting themselves.

Frankenthaler was not often written about by critics and opinions have varied over her art. Her work was sometimes called merely decorative. Although she exhibited often and received wide recognition by the mid-late 1950s, she hardly sold anything. However, over time she had established herself as a significant and innovative painter and print-maker and became better known to the art-going public after her retrospective at the Jewish Museum of New York in 1960 and her major retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969.

Frankenthaler rejected all efforts, feminist and otherwise, to define her art as “woman’s art”. “There are three subjects I don't like discussing. My former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.” She once said.  She came under criticism from mid twentieth century feminists for not embracing the women’s movement but Frankenthaler didn’t want to be known as “a great woman artist.” She wanted to be known as a great artist. Eventually, she cut a big path for women though, whether intentionally or not. 

"Mother Goose Melody". ["Mother Goose Melody", 1959, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Sydney and Frances Lewis.
© 2013 Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts]

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