Helen Frankenthaler was born on December 12, 1928 in New York City to an upper class family. Her father was a supreme court judge and her mother encouraged Helen and her two sisters to train for a career in any field they chose. (Which was somewhat uncommon for the era.) She attended several prestigious private schools and studied under well-known artists.

She married another artist Robert Motherwell in 1958. They were called “the golden couple” of art and were known for lavish parties and their place in both the social and art worlds of New York City.

With an art career that spanned over sixty years, Frankenthaler has had shifts in her styles, but her work is quickly recognized for it’s fluid and spontaneous feel. She described it as a simplified image on very large murals. She once said “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.” Helen was a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement. (abstract: not representational or depicting an easily identified subject and expressionist referring to expressing emotion) These artists felt that the viewer should be included in creating the meaning of the the piece of art. One painting could be interpreted many different ways, depending on the viewer and their response to the piece.

Later in her career, she began to join different areas together with blocks of color (referred to as fields.) She was one of the pioneers of the Color Field movement. She influenced artist like Mark Rothko, whom we studied last year. She also began to make prints and wood cuts in her later years.

Helen was often cited for being a successful woman in a field dominated by men. Even though there are more modern female painters, it was difficult for women to have a big impact in the commercial art world. Her work is unmistakably feminine; which she was sometimes criticized for. In a 1972 interview she said: “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue, I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

Although she was generally a private person and preferred to stay out of the spotlight, Frankenthaler led the National Arts Endowment during a tumultuous time in the 1980s. She stopped the practice of liberal grants to very experimental artists which helped turn the trend in art culture away from the radical back more towards traditional practices. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002. She died on December 27, 2011 at the age 83 in Darien, Connecticut.

Although Helen Frankenthaler worked primarily in acrylic paint (which is the thick paint we use when we paint canvases each year.) She thinned the paint drastically to give it the fluidity of water color. Today we will experiment with breaking an image down into it’s very most basic shapes and forms to make an abstract painting.

1. Show the students the picture I used for reference and my example and discuss how you can see the basic shapes even though the color is different and the form isn’t exactly the same. Ask the students if they can see the scene I was inspired by in the picture.

2. Now talk about how the students can take one of their favorite things or places and deconstruct it to create an abstract piece.

3. Use the watercolors to create fields and larger shapes of color, then add in details as you’d like with the smaller brushes and pastels on top.