Artists' Quotes: Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler - Mountains and Sea, 1952
Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928-2011). Mountains and Sea, 1952. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 86 5/8 x 117 1/4 in. (220 x 297.8 cm). On extended loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2008 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

Helen Frankenthaler was able to serenely mingle with the rough-and-tumble, male-dominated New York School by not caring if "the boys" accepted her. Just as calmly, she invented Color Field Painting -- and left it to others to make a fuss over her discovery. She loved to have fun, dance, throw parties and travel, but throughout the years her privileged upbringing manifested itself in her speech. Upon what did Ms.

Frankenthaler expound with that proper, Upper East Side accent? Here she is in her own words.

On Art

  • The only rule is that there are no rules. Anything is possible. It's all about risks, deliberate risks.
  • I often look at an old master not in terms of its subject matter, but of the placement of color and line. And as an artist, not as a critic or a writer, I want to get at why -- what's making this work? If I were doing this picture, what would I be doing? What would I be feeling? I often say I would be swiping this color, or I'm swiping the placement of these colors on the surface of my picture.
  • Total abstraction was something intellectual to me. I didn't feel it; I could talk about Mondrian but it didn't occur to me to do it. I saw a Dubuffet show at Pierre Matisse in the late forties and came back with a new vocabulary. Also when Baziotes won the Carnegie, there was a reproduction in the Times. I remember bringing it to class. It was source of bewilderment, delineated configurations that seemed to come out of Cubism. It was something new. Those were the tastes of a whole dimension that was to come, much more abstract and allover and I didn't see much more of it until I came to New York. I would go to the old Guggenheim to look at Kandinsky. I liked the early abstractions but the later ones I didn’t like at all.
  • Art has a will of its own. It has nothing to do with the taste of the moment or what's expected of you. That's a formula for dead art, or fashionable art.

On Her Breakthrough

  • I painted Mountains and Sea after seeing the cliffs of Nova Scotia. It's a hilly landscape with wild surf rolling against the rocks. Though it was painted in a windowless loft, the memory of the landscape is in the painting, but it has also equal amounts of Cubism, Pollock, Kandinsky, Gorky.

    On Her Work

    • Being the person I was and am, exposed to the things I have been exposed to, I could only make my painting with the methods -- and with the wrist -- I have.
    • I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it.
    • My pictures are full of climates, abstract climates. They're not nature per se, but a feeling.
    • I will sometimes start a picture feeling "What will happen if I work with three blues and another color, and maybe more or less of the other color than the combined blues?" And very often midway through the picture I have to change the basis of the experience. Or I add and add to the canvas. And if it's over-worked and beyond help I throw it away.
    • I used to try to work from a given, made shape. But I’m less involved now with the shape as such. I'm much more apt to be surprised that pink and green within these shapes are doing something.

    On Being a "Woman Artist"

    • Obviously, first I am involved in painting not the who and how. I wonder if my pictures are "lyrical" (that loaded word!) because I'm a woman. Looking at my paintings as if they were painted by a woman is superficial, a side issue, like looking at Klines and saying they are bohemian. The making of serious painting is difficult and complicated for all serious painters. One must be oneself, whatever.

      On Jackson Pollock

      • The first Pollock show I saw was in 1951 at Betty Parson's gallery, early in the fall, probably September or October. It was staggering. I really felt surrounded. I went with Clement Greenberg who threw me into the room and seemed to say "swim." By then I had been exposed to enough of it so it hit me and had magic, but didn't puzzle me to the point of stopping my feelings.
      • I went out to Springs and saw Pollock and his work, not only the shows. In 1951 I looked at de Kooning as much as at Pollock. Earlier Kandinsky and Gorky had led me into what is now called "Abstract expressionist" painting, but these came after all the Cubist training and exercise. It all combined to push me on. Like Cubism {...} I felt many more possibilities in Pollock's work. That is, I looked {...} and was influenced by both Pollock and de Kooning and eventually felt that there were many more possibilities for me out of the Pollock vocabulary.
      • What I took from that was the gesture and the attitude and the floor working, but I wanted to work with shapes in a very different way. And instead of being involved in his technique, what evolved for me out of my needs and invention had to do with pouring paint, and staining paint.

      On Serving as an Advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts

      • As conceived, the peer panel system is ideal, but frequently it no longer functions for the council board in its job of ''quality sifting.'' Despite the deserved grants, I see more and more non-deserving recipients. I feel there was a time when I experienced loftier minds, relatively unloaded with politics, fashion, and chic. They encouraged the endurance of a great tradition and protected important development in the arts. I recall spirited, productive discussions and arguments.

      On Taboo Subjects

      • There are three subjects I don't like discussing. My former marriage, women artists, and what I think of my contemporaries.


      Frankenthaler, Helen. "Did We Spawn an Arts Monster?" The New York Times (July 17, 1989)

      Geldzahler*, Henry. "Interview with Helen Frankenthaler," Artforum (October 1965)

      Reed, Susan and Jess Cagle. "Helen Frankenthaler Paints a Quirky Portrait of the Artist," People (December 4, 1989)

      Stamberg, Susan. "'Color Field' Artists Found a Different Way," Morning Edition, NPR (March 4, 2008)

      (Ed. note: Henry Geldzahler was Curator for American Art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the interview.)