Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Expressionist Whose Work Opened New Avenue for Painting, Dies at 83

"Mountains and Sea" (1952) by Helen Frankenthaler. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Helen Frankenthaler, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose work in the 1950s helped lead to the movement that would later be termed Color Field painting, died today at her home in Darien, Conn., at the age of 83. According to Ms. Frankenthaler’s family, the artist had been ill for a long time.

In an era that was often unkind to women artists, Ms. Frankenthaler found success at a young age. Her first public exhibition was a group show, in 1950, that was curated by painter Adolph Gottlieb in 1950 at the Kootz Gallery. She was barely into her twenties at the time. Her first solo show was held the next year at the fast-rising Tibor de Nagy Gallery. The Guggenheim presented a retrospective of her work in 1960.

Often working with her canvas on the floor, like Jackson Pollock, Ms. Frankenthaler allowed paint—which she often thinned—to soak into the material itself, which resulted in a blurring of figure and ground, and worked against the illusionistic possibilities of oil painting. Some have compared that work to the watercolors of the early 20th century American artist John Marin.

This staining technique appealed to the sensibility of one of the time’s reigning critics, Clement Greenberg, who was at the then developing the teleological theory of modernist painting and flatness that would define his career, and with whom Ms. Frankenthaler had a relationship for five years. Artists like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis (who visited her studio in 1953) later used this method to produce spare geometric paintings. Ms. Frankenthaler, in contrast, remained resolutely committed to expressive marks, which hinted at emotional content.

Ms. Frankenthaler was born in New York on Dec. 12, 1928, to Alfred Frankenthaler, a judge with the New York Supreme Court, and Martha Frankenthaler (née Lowenstein), who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. She attended the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, studying with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo. She also briefly studied with painter Han Hofmann, who taught scores of Abstract Expressionism’s leading exponents.

As Grace Glueck notes in The New York Times today, Ms. Frankenthaler was one of the few abstract artists of her time to have been raised in relative privilege, and married painter Robert Motherwell in 1958, another well-to-do member of the Abstract Expressionist movement. The two divorced in 1971. She remarried in 1994, to investment banker Stephen M. DuBrul Jr. (Ms. Glueck also has a remarkable story about the artist dancing with John Travolta.)

Besides her 1960 Guggenheim retrospective, Ms. Frankenthaler also had major shows at the Whitney Museum in 1969, the Museum of Modern Art in 1989 and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., in 1993.

Reviewing the artist’s 1989 MoMA show in The Times, critic John Russell noted that Ms. Frankenthaler’s breakthrough work in the early 1950s was “painted at a time when the future of abstract painting seemed like a sacred trust that was to be carried forward into all eternity.” That changed, with the rise of neo-Dadaists like Rauschenberg and Johns and the ascendence of the deadpan Pop artists. “All of this notwithstanding, Ms. Frankenthaler’s career has proceeded in orderly, not to say majestic style,” the critic continued. “These images are the product of an imagination as exempt from current obsessions as it is possible to be. They have weight and style and presence.”

Though best known as a painter, Ms. Frankenthaler also produced a large body of work on paper and prints, and also made a brief foray into sculpture, working with an assistant in the studio of British artist Anthony Caro. However, regardless of medium, she told The New York Times in 2003, her concern was always the same. “With any picture, on paper or on canvas,” she said, “the main idea is: does it work? Is it beautiful?” Helen Frankenthaler, Abstract Expressionist Whose Work Opened New Avenue for Painting, Dies at 83