Color Field Painting and Helen Frankenthaler

Katherine20th Century Art, Artist SpotlightLeave a Comment

Painting that focuses purely on color is at times pushed aside, disregarded as being merely decorative. Dismissing an entire genre can mean missing out on compelling pieces. Color Field Painting was a subgenre of Abstract Expressionism. This style treats the entire surface as a field of vision, rather than having a central focus. This is a celebration of flatness and leaves behind any ties to objects in the natural world. Helen Frankenthaler, known for her work in Color Field, used a technique of staining to achieve her final product. The colors she created are luminous and dynamic, unlike anything else.

Frankenthaler developed her soak stain technique in 1952 at the age of 23. This technique involved working with thinned, watered-down acrylic paint and working onto unprimed canvas. The process was impulsive. Helen Frankenthaler would often allow a painting to take her in a certain direction or only jump in with a rough idea. This sense of freedom can be seen in many of her paintings.

Helen Frankenthaler

Mountains and Sea
National Gallery of Art, Washingon, DC, USA

She had stumbled onto this method that would become her signature. Frankenthaler took a large piece of raw canvas, about 7-by-10 feet, and placed it on the floor of her studio. Sketching with charcoal and memory of Cape Breton were her only guides. She knew that she wanted something with the delicacy of watercolor, but not necessarily watercolor itself. She thinned oil paints and poured them over the canvas. The result was Mountains and Sea, her most famous work and an icon of modern art. Called “a bridge between Pollack and what was possible,” it was considered a fresh use of color and inspired similar efforts by Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

Layering paints and allowing these different layers to show through was another favorite of Helen Frankenthaler. This along with the use of staining and multiple painting methods came together to express a mood or emotional state. In a more recent collection, Tales of the Genji, utilized fifty-three transparent colors on carved wood blocks. This series was inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts and an 11th century novel by the same name.

The wood was covered in cotton paper to allow for colors to bleed and stain subtly. The wood grains show through the textured paint, giving the works a delicate affect. While there is freedom and a hint of chaos in these works, there is still a sense of precision and control. Helen Frankenthaler’s strength was matching spontaneity with restraint. Beauty was valued over disarray.

Color and texture is as evocative and expressive as subject matter. For Helen Frankenthaler, color was the genesis of everything. These works are provocative and soothing at once. Ambiguity and the free-form shapes allow for a unique mode of expression.

Kenny Ackerman is an Art Dealer in New York, specializing in Fine Art Paintings from 19th-21st century Europe and America. To buy or sell original paintings by artists we represent, contact Ackerman’s Fine Art here.

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