Artist Spotlight: Helen Frankenthaler

Artist Spotlight: Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler is one of the most well-known artists of the 20th century as a defining member of the American abstract artists. Throughout her career, Frankenthaler’s artistic methods were not only confined within the Abstract Expressionist field. She is credited in the expressionist transition to Color Field painting. Frankenthaler’s first teachings about art came from Mexican surrealist and abstract artist Rufino Tamayo and Expressionist Paul Feeley. Her early work was not only inspired by these two artists, but by original Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. They were responsible for the creation of drip-painting and multiform painting, respectively.

Frankenthaler’s professional career began in 1950 when her work was exhibited in the Kootz Gallery’s Unknown Artist’s show. The next year Frankenthaler had her first solo exhibition while also being included in landmark exhibitions in New York.

Soak-Stain Technique

Not only a leader within her own field, Frankenthaler is noted for her creation of the soak-stain technique. Soak-staining is the technique of using acrylic paints on canvas to create a visual effect of a watercolor.

Frankenthaler’s seminal work, utilizing soak-stain, was her 1952 painting Mountains and Sea. The painting is defined by her arrangement of shapes and uses of color that evoke scenery and landscapes of the natural world. This fundamental work created the bridge from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field. This inspired a new generation of artists including notable Color Field painters like Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

Marriage and Later Work

Frankenthaler’s 1958 marriage to fellow Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell brought upon a new era of her artwork. She ended the decade with her studies of paintings comprised of fine, colorful lines and smaller abstract shapes. By the late 50’s, Frankenthaler’s work was internationally renowned and could be found in major international exhibitions. In the early 1960s, Frankenthaler experimented with placing a single-color stain on the canvas and dispersing the color across the canvas into new shapes and forms, as can be seen in her 1964 Cape (Provincetown).


Frankenthaler’s work was not only confined to painting as she also made ceramics, steel sculptures, and prints. Frankenthaler’s biggest accomplishment outside the realm of painting were her woodcuts. She is considered to be one of the greatest contemporary artists within that field.

Frankenthaler’s desire to try new things is indicative of her curiosity and ability to take risks. These aspects of her personality can be attributed to her success as an artist, especially within a male-dominated field.

Auction Market and Museum Pieces

Most recently, Frankenthaler’s works were sold in Sotheby’s newly formatted live online auction. Her 1978 piece Tunis had an auction estimate of $1,200,000- $1,800,000. It sold in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction for $2,960,000. Even more impressive, 1975’s Royal Fireworks had an estimate of $2,0000,000- $3,000,000. Royal Fireworks sold for $7,895,300, more than double the high estimate, a record high for Frankenthaler at auction.  

In addition to her permanent museum pieces, Frankenthaler is currently included in major exhibitions showing at Tate Modern in London and The Met. She has also previously been included in exhibitions by Gagosian, Centre Pompidou, and Musee de l’Orangerie.

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Article Name
Artist Spotlight: Helen Frankenthaler
The Life and Career of Abstract Expressionist Artist Helen Frankenthaler