Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Life and Artwork of Helen Frankenthaler- Alex Chan

"There are no rules. That is how art is born, how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules. That is what invention is about" -Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was among the most influential artists of the mid-twentieth century, and had a diverse, evolving, and inventive career that spanned over six decades.  She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Frankenthaler is also credited for playing a pivotal role in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting, which became her technique of specialty as her style evolved. Some artists that had the greatest influence on her work and style include Clement Greenberg, Hans Hofmann, and Jackson Pollack.

Mountains and Sea, 1952, 220 x 297.8 cm, oil and charcoal on canvas
Frankenthaler's official artistic career was launched in 1952 with the exhibition of "Mountains and Sea" (pictured above). In the 1950s, Frankenthaler tended to center her works in the middle of the canvas, where the edges were of little consequence to the compositional whole. In the late 50s, she began to experiment with linear shapes and more organic, sun-like, rounded forms in her works. Starting in 1960, Frankenthaler began to shift her compositional technique and explored the idea of symmetrical paintings; she began to place strips of colors near the edges of her paintings, thus involving the edges as a part of the compositional whole. She embraced the general simplification of her style, and began to make use of single stains and blots of solid color against white backgrounds, often in the form of geometric shapes. In my opinion, I find this piece to be one of Frankenthaler's greatest successes because she masterfully executes the symmetry and compositional balance of the canvas, while also enticing the viewer with satisfying color hue combinations.

Tutti-Fruitti, 1966, 175 x 296 cm. acrylic on canvas
The painting (pictured above), titled "Tutti-Fruitti", is an example of Frankenthaler's work in the genre of Color Field painting. In general, this term refers to the application of large areas, or fields, of a single color to the canvas. Although Color Field artists evolved from the Abstract Expression movement, they are careful to distinguish themselves from Abstract Expressionists because they remove the emotional, mythic or the religious content and the highly personal and gestural and painterly application of expressionism. Color Field painting style is unique because of the use of colors and hues that are homologous in tone and/or intensity. I find the depth that Frankenthaler somehow manages to create, despite the use of flat colors and hues, to be incredible and a true testament to her skill. I also appreciate the way she allows the color swatches to almost melt into each other, while also allowing the figures to maintain a firm shape.

Adirondacks, 1992, acrylic on canvas

"Adirondacks", the piece pictured above, is one of Frankenthaler's later pieces that she created. The technique that she uses in this piece is called "soak stain", where she would paint onto unprimed canvas with oil or acrylic paints that she heavily diluted with turpentine. Soak stain allowed for the colors to soak directly into the canvas, creating a liquefied, translucent effect that strongly resembled watercolor. Frankenthaler often worked by laying her canvas out on the floor, further evidence of the influence that Jackson Pollock had over her art. I think its incredible to compare this painting from the 90s, with "Mountains and Sea" which Frankenthaler created in the 50s. To analyze the pieces side-by-side is to comprehend and appreciate the evolution that Frankenthaler's technique and style underwent till the final years of her life. I am amazed at the way her art matured and transformed with Frankenthaler throughout her life.

I chose to study the artwork of Helen Frankenthaler because I had actually come across the quote at the beginning of the blog post before I had ever seen any of her work or understood her unique techniques. For me, her quote made it evident that this woman was an artist of progress and innovation, and that she wasn't afraid to push her art to the limit. When I came across her pieces I had great respect and awe for the way her work seemed to evolve and develop overtime. I felt that as I was looking through her art in chronological order, I was also watching Helen Frankenthaler grow as an artist, a woman, and a human. 

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