Painting of the Day

18 Mar

Helen Frankenthaler, Sea Picture with Black, 1959. Oil on canvas; 84 1/2 x 57 in. Gift of Susan Morse Hilles, 1961.7

Sea Picture with Black. by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Oil on canvas, 1959. Currently on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT.

Notes from caption that appears adjacent to the painting in the Wadsworth:

By spilling highly thinned oil pigments onto raw cotton duck, artist Helen Frankenthaler caused the paint to soak into and stain the fabric of the canvas. Her new method was unlike the thick brushstrokes of earlier Abstract Expressionist painters like Willem de Kooning. Introducing transparent planes and layers of paint, Frankenthaler was able to capture a feeling of light and air formerly associated only with watecolor. In Sea Picture with Black the artist evokes a sense of the ocean and surf through her choice and colors and lively composition, rather than through representational suggestions of natural imagery.

More information about Frankenthaler from

The painter and printmaker Helen Frankenthaler was among the most influential artists of the mid-twentieth-century. Introduced early in her career to major Abstract Expressionists artists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline (and later marrying Robert Motherwell), Frankenthaler was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painting practices, but developed her own distinct approach to the style. She invented the “soak-stain” technique, in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint onto canvas, producing luminous color washes that appeared to merge with the canvas and deny any hint of three-dimensional illusionism. Her breakthrough gave rise to the movement promoted by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg as the “next big thing” in American art: Color Field painting, marked by airy compositions that celebrated the joys of pure color and gave an entirely new look and feel to the surface of the canvas. Later in her career, Frankenthaler turned her attention to other artistic media, most notably woodcut, in which she achieved the quality of painting, in some cases replicating the effects of her soak-stain process.

While creating Mountains and Sea(1952), Frankenthaler arrived at her innovative variant of Jackson Pollock’s pouring technique, in which she likewise poured paints onto enormous canvases placed on the floor. But while Pollock used enamel paints, which remain on the surface of the canvas when dried, Frankenthaler poured oil paints that she had thinned with turpentine that then soaked into the fabric of the canvas. Frankenthaler’s soak-stain process created luminescent, misty compositions dominated by large areas of color that seemed to have emerged onto the canvas naturally and organically.

 For both Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, works like Mountains and Sea represented a mode of abstract painting that moved beyond Pollock’s textured, psychologically fraught canvases to compositions almost entirely based on color. On the basis of the soak-stain technique and the color wash, Frankenthaler, Louis, and Noland went on to develop Color Field painting. In such works, the entire space of the picture is conceived as a “field” that appears to spread beyond the edges of the canvas; figure and ground became one and the same, and three-dimensional illusionism is completely jettisoned.
  In another major departure from first-generation Abstract Expressionism, Frankenthaler was an abstract artist for whom the natural landscape – rather than the existential confrontation with the canvas or search for the sublime – served as the major focus and inspiration. Her pared-down forms were often informed by her impressions of nature, be they the arid terrain of the American Southwest; a mulberry tree seen in upstate New York; or the Long Island Sound, viewed from the artist’s home in Darien, Connecticut.
 Frankenthaler applied her breakthrough soak-stain technique to other painterly media, most notably, watered-down acrylic, which she used in place of turpentine-thinned paint starting in the 1960s. Subsequently, she also sought to replicate the method’s effects in printmaking, creating woodcuts that not only resembled paintings, but also achieved the misty, watercolor-like quality of her color washes.
My comments:
I’m not a huge fan of color field painting, but I really like this painting in particular by Helen Frankenthaler. I feel like it was a great expressive choice on her part to use this particular style of painting to paint this particular subject because it feels like the perfect way to capture the essence of the ocean in paint. The shape that the splatters of paint make on the canvas is strongly reminiscent of the way that waves actually do crash onto the sand, and the colors are also pretty similar to the color of the ocean on a cloudy day. While a painting of the sea by artists such as Winslow Homer inarguably can be identified as the sea, I think that his realistic paintings do not achieve the same artistic expression of the sea as Frankenthaler’s painting does.
This is an example of a painting of the sea by Winslow Homer. While he obviously did a good job making an image that anyone could recognize the sea, did he really capture the sea? Frankenthaler once said:
“What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it’s pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is – did I make a beautiful picture?”
A “strength” of Homer’s painting over Frankenthaler’s is that if it wasn’t for the title, we probably wouldn’t guess right away that Frankenthaler is depicting the sea in her painting, whereas even without the title we know that Homer’s painting is of the sea. While I acknowledge that there are valid arguments on both sides for what makes for a better painting, in my opinion Frankenthaler has the better painting in this case because her painting seems the most truthful to life, and being truthful to life doesn’t necessarily mean looking like real life. Feelings and senses we have about things we see in the world are things that, when expressed in art, don’t always look “real,” in my opinion. What is the point of art if we strive for an art that merely mimics what we already see? Should art express the things that can’t be communicated in words or music or dance or other art forms? If so, then it seems to me that art should try to not be representational if it wants to be truly expressive, because observations and feelings don’t have tangible, objective forms so it is the artist’s job to translate them into paint or whatever medium he chooses.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara March 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    I understand that she painted this after a day with her Mother at Mystic Seaport………

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