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Women’s History Month: Helen Frankenthaler

"Tutti-Fruitti"
1966
Acrylic on canvas
116 3a/4 × 69 in. (296.5 × 175.3 cm)
Gift of Seymour H. Knox

"Tutti-Fruitti" 1966 Acrylic on canvas 116 3a/4 × 69 in. (296.5 × 175.3 cm) Gift of Seymour H. Knox

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928 – 2011

"Tutti-Fruitti" 1966 Acrylic on canvas 116 3a/4 × 69 in. (296.5 × 175.3 cm) Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1976, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

“Tutti-Fruitti”
1966
Acrylic on canvas
116 3a/4 × 69 in. (296.5 × 175.3 cm)
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1976, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

Helen Frankenthaler’s cheerful Color Field painting Tutti-Fruitti is currently on view at Crystal Bridges as part of the temporary exhibition Van Gogh to Rothko: Masterworks from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.  It is a wonderful example of a signature work by an artist not currently represented in Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection.

In 1964, two years before Helen Frankenthaler painted Tutti-Fruitti, she was included in the groundbreaking Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Clement Greenberg. The show introduced a new generation of abstract painting that came to be known as Color Field painting. Color Field artists rejected the emotional, gestural painting style of the Abstract Expressionists and preferred a quieter, more cerebral approach. In 1959, Frankenthaler married fellow artist Robert Motherwell. Unlike most of their Abstract Expressionist artist friends, both Motherwell and Frankenthaler came from well-to-do families and developed a reputation for lavish entertaining.

Helen Frankenthaler "Mountains and Sea" 1952 Charcoal and oil on canvas National Gallery of Art, Washingon, DC

Helen Frankenthaler
“Mountains and Sea”
1952
Charcoal and oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washingon, DC

Frankenthaler’s innovative “soak-stain” style was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s technique of pouring paint.  While creating her famous painting Mountains and Sea, Frankenthaler experimented with a unique variation: Like Pollock, she 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 and create a rich texture, Frankenthaler thinned oil paint with turpentine and poured it onto the raw canvas, allowing it to soak in and fuse with the surface in ways that were only partially under her control. She called the areas where her colors converge “well-ordered collisions.”

Frankenthaler’s soak-stain process created luminescent, misty compositions dominated by large areas of color that seemed to have emerged on the canvas naturally and organically. The technique allowed her to spontaneously create complex forms.

In 1963, she began experimenting with acrylic. Acrylic can be thinned with water, soaks in slowly, and does not leave stains or “halos” on the unpainted areas of the canvas. Instead, the vibrant colors create a feeling of brightness in this painting that matches its cheery title. Frankenthaler’s works often express a certain feeling or idea. She felt that Tutti-Fruitti, referring to something that has many flavors all in one, was appropriate as a title for a painting of numerous colors.

Frankenthaler’s soak-stain technique influenced other artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland – both artists are represented in the Crystal Bridges collection.

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