From the New York Times comes the news that Helen Frankenthaler has died. The New York painter will be remembered for a diverse career, but here in Washington, she ought to be known for inspiring one of the most productive periods in the city’s art history.
In the early 1950s, as Grace Glueck‘s obituary recounts, Frankenthaler experimented with unprimed canvas, finding purchase with 1952’s Mountain and Sea, which is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art. It was not lost on Frankenthaler at the time what she’d discovered. For that painting, the artist poured thinned paint onto unprimed canvas, thereby staining it. Frankenthaler had invented the Washington Color School; Washington just didn’t know it yet.
It was a year later that Morris Louis, who would go on to become Washington’s most celebrated painter, would meet Frankenthaler, on the urging of critic Clement Greenberg. After Louis saw Mountains and Sea in 1953 on a visit with Kenneth Noland—another painter who would be remembered later as a founder of the Washington Color School movement—Louis dropped what he was doing and adopted Frankenthaler’s technique.
Louis abandoned gesso, the primer that prevents the paint from staining the canvas. He further innovated his own style, dropping the brush in favor of uncontrolled pours. He had already been using Magna acrylic paints by the time he met Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler’s studio-mate, the painter Friedel Dzubas, also used Magna. Frankenthaler herself didn’t adopt acrylics until much later.
Louis and Noland have always been remembered among the heavies of the Washington Color School, along with painters Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tow Downing, and Paul Reed. (Later artists connected to this movement include Anne Truitt and Sam Gilliam.) These men deliberately took the expressionism out of the color field paintings, deciding on control and precision over lyricism for the better part of their careers. But it was Frankenthaler’s invention, or discovery, that served as the founding principle of the Washington Color School.
Does Frankenthaler deserve greater glory for inspiring a movement? It was the versatility of acrylic paints as much as the staining process that made the work of the Washington Color School possible. Or so Paul Reed told me earlier this year; he likened the advent of acrylic paints to the invention of collapsible paint tubes that made outdoor plein air painting, and therefore Impressionism, possible.
Still: No stain, no gain. Do we hang an asterisk on the Washington Color School? In the end, Frankenthaler’s work took a very different direction, while the six artists most associated with the Washington Color School not only knew one another, several of them worked together and even lived together at times. It was this regional identity and close association as much as anything that led Greenberg (and not the artists themselves) to come up with the name for the movement. But for the record: Frankenthaler, the seventh Washington Color School painter, died today.