Ab Ex Painter Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

12/28/2011 8:58 AM |

Helen Frankenthaler in her Upper East Side studio in 1964. (Courtesy SFMoMA)

  • Helen Frankenthaler in her Upper East Side studio in 1964. (Courtesy SFMoMA)

Renowned painter Helen Frankenthaler, who rose to prominence in the New York art world in the early 50s and remained an influential artist in the Abstract Expressionist and color field movements, died on Tuesday at her home in Darien, Connecticut at age 83. Her studio assistant said that the native New Yorker succumbed after a long battle with an unspecified illness.

She’s survived by her husband Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., a former investment banker, six nieces and nephews, and two step-daughters from an earlier marriage to the painter Robert Motherwell, the Times obit notes.

Frankenthaler was born in New York on December 12, 1928. Unlike most of the artists who were members of the mid-century Downtown scene, she came from a wealthy background: her father, Alfred Frankenthaler, was a New York State Supreme Court Judge; her mother, born Martha Lowenstein, had come to New York from Germany as a child. After graduating from the Dalton School and attending Bennington College she returned to the city where her partner from 1950-55, revered critic and Abstract Expressionism promoter Clement Greenberg, introduced her to the elite of the New York art world—Jackson Pollock, the de Koonings, Franz Kline and so on. She married Robert Motherwell in 1958 and they moved to the Upper East Side. The art world power couple divorced in 1979, and she married DuBrul in 1994.

Though Frankenthaler’s abstract, landscape-evoking pigment-stained canvases were met with their fair share of critical praise throughout the 50s, she only had her first museum show in 1960 at the Jewish Museum. Nine years later, a major retrospective at the Whitney confirmed her standing as a leader of second generation Abstract Expressionism. Frankenthaler also became well known for her etchings, prints and lithographs. Her 1952 painting “Mountains and Sea” has been credited by many as the canvas that launched the Color Field movement. She was represented by Knoedler & Company, the 165-year-old Upper East Side gallery that closed a month ago amidst allegations of selling forged Pollocks.

In a 2003 interview with the Times, referring to her friend the sculptor Anthony Caro, she said: “I think Tony gets better and better, and more and more daring. […] One is safe if one is still able to risk. I hope I can still do that.”

Following the death last week of John Chamberlain, this marks the second major figure of post-war American Modernism we’ve lost this month.