Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) was an American Abstract Expressionist painter with a career spanning 60 years from her first exhibition in 1951 to her death in 2011. Her experimentations with pouring thinned-out paint on unprimed canvases were influential in the creation of the Colour Field Painting movement of the 1960s.
Frankenthaler studied at the Dalton School as a child and later graduated from Bennington College in Vermont in 1949. In 1960, she married artist Robert Motherwell. During her years of schooling, she studied under Rufino Tamayo (Dalton School), Paul Feeley (Bennington College), and Hans Hofmann. She had her first solo exhibition at the Tabor de Nagy Gallery in New York in 1951. The following year, she created Mountains and Sea (1952), a painting that utilized a soak-stain technique whereby she poured thinned paint onto an unprimed canvas that was laid on the floor of her studio to create patches of suspended colours. She worked in a multitude of media, including painting, ceramics, printmaking, and beyond. Beyond painting, she made significant contributions to a ‘print renaissance’ occurring in the American Abstract Expressionist movement through her woodcut prints.
In 1959, Frankenthaler obtained first prize at the Premiere Bienalle de Paris, and she was one of the representative artists for the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1966. Her first two major museum exhibitions were held at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1960 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969. Throughout her career, her work has been exhibited in a number of national and international shows, including group shows, solo shows, and retrospective exhibitions. In 2001, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. She has also served on numerous councils and boards, including the National Council on the Arts of the National Endowment for the Arts (1985–1992) and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1974–2011). Much of her art can be found in collections at major institutions all over the world. The New Britain Museum of American Art organized a retrospective exhibition from February 11 to May 23, 2021, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Frankenthaler’s death.