Helen Frankenthaler not only pioneered color field painting but also enjoyed critical acclaim during her lifetime. That’s unusual for any painter, let alone a woman during a time when female artists were still rare.

Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), one of the most influential art critic in the 1940s-1960s, first recognized the genius of Jackson Pollock while he was still misunderstood and scorned (and inexpensive). During the 1940s, Greenberg began championing art that was completely abstract and in which the “hand” of the artist was unapparent.

Such formalist painting arose in the 1950s in reaction to Abstract Expressionism, and was an attempt, promoted by Greenberg, to create “unemotional” art.  The painterly, gestural brushwork and thick impasto of abstract expressionism were supplanted by smooth canvases on which the paint was united with the surface.

Mountains and Sea, 1952.  Oil and charcoal on canvas, 7' 2 3/4" by 9' 8 1/8".  Collection of the artist on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

Mountains and Sea, 1952.  Oil and charcoal on canvas, 7′ 2 3/4″ by 9′ 8 1/8″.  Collection of the artist on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

After returning from a trip to Nova Scotia in summer of 1952, Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) tacked a 7′ by 10′ unprimed canvas onto her studio floor (note to non-painters: a canvas is “primed” by covering it with a base layer, gesso, that prevents paint from soaking into the canvas).

Frankenthaler then blocked in some areas with charcoal, and poured diluted, thinned oil paint onto this canvas. She allowed the paint to run by tilting the canvas angle; she rubbed and blotted the paint.

The thinned paint absorbed into the canvas, garnering Greenberg’s exorbitant praise for the flatness, shape of field, and color in Mountains and Sea — and creating a new style called color field painting.

Frankenthaler had joined nonobjective figure and ground in a novel, breathtaking manner.

 Frankenthaler pouring paint.

Frankenthaler pouring paint.

Jackson Pollock paintings were also created by working on the floor, but Pollock used enamel paint that stood on top of the canvas rather than absorb; his paintings were based on his bodily movements and gestures (hence the label action painter), while Helen Frankenthaler paintings were more about the interaction between the paint and canvas.

While any analysis of Mountains and Sea is personal, one readily imagines the topography of the Cape Breton coastline, with a pyramidal shape dominating the center and meeting a sea of blue at center right.  The whiteness of the unprimed canvas evokes brilliant sunshine. The pallette of blues and pale greens hints of sky, water, forest and trees, suggesting an infinite image just partially captured on canvas.

Frankenthaler commented that Mountains and Sea looked

“to many people like a large paint rag, casually accidental and incomplete.”

Now one of the most famous Helen Frankenthaler paintings, Mountains and Sea was exhibited in 1953 and received scant attention until the painters Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland visited her studio. Both found in Mountains and Sea a new direction for modern art, away from Abstract Expressionism. Louis commented that Mountains and Sea was “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible.” Both Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland explored color field painting themselves.

Clement Greenberg touted Frankenthaler’s stain painting, a new way of painting which became the foundation of color field painting.  But she contributed far more – Helen Frankenthaler reinstated the supremacy of color, and altered the direction of abstract art.

And by the way… she developed color field painting with Mountains and Sea when she was 23 years old!

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