It was Pollock’s unorthodox action painting that
opened the way for Frankenthaler to develop her
new soak-stain technique. Instead of using thick,
Living in New York City in the 1950s, Franken-
thaler belonged to a community of abstract expres-
sionist artists whose bold, energetic brushstrokes
emphasized the material qualities of paint and
the gesture of the artists’ hand instead of form-
ing a representational image. At the same time,
New York art critics were encouraging artists to
forgo three-dimensional illusionism, and create
“honest” images that would look as flat as the
canvases they were painted on. Frankenthaler was
especially drawn to the work of Jackson Pollock,
who attracted the attention of the art world by put-
ting enormous canvases on the floor (instead of on
easels) and dripping paint directly onto them.
As a student, Frankenthaler learned to paint
in a conventional manner. She knew how to mix
her colors on a palette and prepare the canvas by
coating it with primer to prevent the paint from
sinking into the fabric. However, when she set up
her own studio, she began to explore some nontraditional ideas about painting.
Helen Frankenthaler has always believed that there
is more than one way to put paint on canvas. At
a time when most artists used only paintbrushes
and easels, Frankenthaler preferred to pour paint
out of a coffee can onto a canvas on the floor, then
push the paint around with large housepainters’
brushes, sponges, squeegees, rags, windshield wipers, and even turkey basters from the kitchen.
About the Artist
Looking & Learning
oil-based enamel paint as Pollock did, Frankenthaler thinned her oil paint with turpentine so that
it could be poured like water onto the canvas. She
then used raw, unprimed canvas that allowed the
paint to soak right into of the fibers of the cloth,
allowing its woven texture to remain visible. Art
critics praised Frankenthaler for her flat images—so flat that they actually became fused with
Surprise is an important aspect of Frankenthaler’s creative process. Even if she starts with a clear
idea in her mind’s eye, she cannot completely control the colors that she pours onto the canvas. Taking advantage of unforeseen visual effects, she lets
the colors, shapes, and lines that are already on her
canvas dictate what her next steps will be, even if
it means that the painting will end up looking different from what she had originally intended.
Helen Frankenthaler, Madridscape, detail, 1959. Oil on canvas. 102 x 161½" (259 x 410 cm). The Baltimore Museum of
Art: Anonymous Gift, BMA 1966.54. © The Baltimore Museum of Art.
The halo effect.
Madridscape, by Helen Frankenthaler