Artist Inspiration : HELEN FRANKENTHALER

I’ve always been a great fan of Helen Frankenthaler’s work, since my encounter with it at the most unlikely of places – the McDonald’s fast food restaurant on O’Connell’s Street in Sligo, Ireland. Macca’s (as they like to call it here in Australia) isn’t known for displaying works of art, even prints, by famous artists…but the one in Sligo clearly had lofty aspirations. There they were, 5 of Helen’s pieces, in plain metallic frames, poster sized, lining one wall of the restaurant. I was immediately smitten and intrigued. And ever since then, I’ve been interested in Colour Field Art. Perhaps that is a misnomer, as what I mean is not so much the large blocks of colour as one sees in a Robert Motherwell (who was incidentally married to Helen from 1958-1971), or Mark Rothko or Piet Mondrian, but more of large washes of colours that appear transparent or luminous, with a dynamic, organic feel.

Like these Frankenthaler works:


2004 Snow Pines woodcut


12. helen frankenthaler




For more information about Helen Frankenthaler’s life, see this link

What intrigues me about Helen’s style and technique is this (taken from the Wikipedia entry about her):

Initially associated with abstract expressionism her career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition of Mountains and Sea. This painting is large – measuring seven feet by ten feet – and has the effect of a watercolour, though it is painted in oils. In it, she introduced the technique of painting directly onto an unprepared canvas so that the material absorbs the colors. She heavily diluted the oil paint with turpentine so that the color would soak into the canvas. This technique, known as “soak stain” was used by Jackson Pollock (1912–1956), and others; and was adopted by other artists notably Morris Louis (1912–1962), and Kenneth Noland (1924–2010), and launched the second generation of the Colour Field school of painting. This method would sometimes leave the canvas with a halo effect around each area to which the paint was applied but has a disadvantage in that the oil in the paints will eventually cause the canvas to discolor and rot away.

I also found on Google several photos of Helen Frankenthaler at work in her studio, courtesy of the Ernst Haas estate.  Here are my favourites, I’ve arranged them in sequence to show her technique:








And this is my favourite, of Helen in 1964 walking past her huge artworks hanging on the wall and lying on the floor in her studio.  That beautiful smile shows pure joy.



(Postscript: I was motivated to look up the Sligo McDonald’s on Google, just to see if there were any pictures of that wall with Helen’s works on it.  Sad to say, the restaurant now no longer exists but is a bank instead. I hope Helen’s prints went to some deserving art collector).

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