Helen Frankenthaler, American, 1928–2011
Acrylic on canvas
106 15/16 × 93 3/4 in. (271.6 × 238.1 cm)
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Frankenthaler was born in New York City as the youngest child of a New York Supreme Court justice. After studying a t Bennington College in Vermont, Frankenthaler returned to New York in 1950 to pursue painting. It was during this period that she encountered the Abstract Expressionist movement for the first time and was heavily influenced by the work of Jackson Pollock. A short time thereafter, she married fellow Abstract Expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. Soon developing her own style, Frankenthaler began experimenting with stain painting and using large fields of intense color. During the 1970s she expanded her scope with woodcuts, sculpture, and color printmaking.
Demonstrating the sense of structure that is characteristic of Frankenthaler’s work at this time, the unpainted surface of the canvas is in stark contrast to the expanses of green, blue, black, and white colors. On the left side of the composition an oblong black shape is stacked on top of a green geometrical field. The lower right side is filled with a field of white color. Connecting the two halves of the painting is a single blue line stretching at an angle across almost the entire length of the canvas. The colors found in nature inspired Frankenthaler’s choice of color.
Though influenced by Jackson Pollock’s “drip” method, Frankenthaler’s technique differed. She incorporated thinned-down oil paint to create broad areas of color and translucent washes of paint that soaked, or stained, directly onto the canvas, allowing the texture of the fabric to show through. Frankenthaler used rollers and squeegees to push and blot the paint. In 1962 Frankenthaler switched from oil paint, which tends to fade, to water-based acrylic paint. In Blue Rail, painted after this medium change, colored shapes are juxtaposed against one another. The straight blue line connecting the shapes near the top of the canvas was not stained, but instead painted with a ruler.
Even in 1969 the United States was still feeling the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s. There was a general feeling of moving away from the conservative fifties and into a time of revolutionary thinking. Amid war and social turmoil, American culture flourished. Although the art world was undergoing a major upheaval from Abstract Expressionism to the culture-oriented Pop Art movement, Frankenthaler remained firmly grounded in Abstract Expressionism. Today, art historians refer to her innovative style within the movement as “Color Field.”
- Start by analyzing Frankenthaler’s composition, the way she has arranged shapes on the canvas. Which shape is your eye drawn to first? Can you separate a foreground from a background?
- How would you describe the composition as a whole? How has Frankenthaler balanced space in this painting?
- Do the shapes in this composition remind you of something—another shape, a silhouette, a feeling? Do you think that Frankenthaler was trying to represent something in creating this painting?
- Would you describe this artwork as organic or inorganic? Defend your answer with visual evidence from the artwork.
- Look closely at the shapes themselves. Can you discern any brushstrokes, finger prints, or other marks from the artist’s hand or tools? How might Frankenthaler have applied the paint?
- Frankenthaler looked to nature to inspire the cool blues and greens of this particular artwork. Imagine if she had chosen the fiery reds of a volcano, or the stony grays and browns of granite. How would the overall tone of this painting change? Do Frankenthaler’s chosen colors affect the overall mood?
- Frankenthaler was a contemporary of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, and was influenced by their work. Compare Blue Rail to Pollock’s painting, Number 6. How are the two painters’ styles different from each other? How are they similar?
- Consider the title of this work. Why might Frankenthaler have chosen the name Blue Rail? Does knowing the title impact or change your understanding of the painting?
- Frankenthaler made a point of applying paint to her canvases in unconventional ways, using squeegees, rollers, and thinned-down paint stains instead of the traditional brush and palette. Why do you think Frankenthaler did so? Look to Blue Rail as an example. How might it feel different if it was painted in a more traditional manner?
- The titular stroke of blue near the top of the painting was carefully applied with a ruler and brush, in contrast to the other shapes in this artwork. Why do you think the artist chose to render it differently?
- Note the size of this painting: roughly 7 feet by 8 feet. Why do you think Frankenthaler chose to use such a large canvas? What effect might this painting have on its surroundings if it was in a gallery or on a living room wall?
You can use Frankenthaler's work as a way to explore abstraction: exploring the differences between abstract and representational art, and understanding how Frankenthaler's critics reacted to her abstraction.
Have students bring in a picture of a landscape or person. Have them use tracing paper to create a more abstract version of the picture by changing the colors, kinds of lines, and shapes.
How has the original picture changed? What elements did students choose to alter? Why?
At the height of their popularity the Abstract Expressionists were considered the epitome of the modern artist. As a research assignment, have students read critiques of Abstract Expressionist art in the 1950s and of contemporary art today.
How do the reviews compare? Are there any similarities between the reaction to art made fifty years ago and art made today? Is there an artist working today who might be comparable to Helen Frankenthaler?
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.