Painting with Helen

She certainly is not the only modern painter who preferred to work on the floor. But, judging from the photographs taken in her studio, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) brought a passion to ‘floor-painting’ that had not been there before, not even with Pollock or Motherwell. In her case ‘to paint’ often meant: to crawl around on a large flat canvas (or an enormous stretch of paper) ‘tilling’ it with her colours as if it were a piece of land. ‘Colour-field painting’ applies well to what she did.

She knelt on her large canvases as if they were islands about to be flooded by coloured waters that only she could direct properly to follow the streams of beauty. (‘Beauty’ had become an incendiary word, she once said in an interview; she went on using it anyway). At some time in her career she had lost the habit of working with brushes, replacing them with sponges and other tools to rub and wash the paint onto her canvas-field. With her very fluidly applied paint she made space and colour meet in a way they had never met before.


The remarkable elegance that distinguishes her work, where does it come from? It is a purely abstract elegance. This raises the question what elegance actually is, if, indeed, it is not just a human quality, appertaining to abstraction as well. I believe it is the movement of her painting arm – of her intensely painting body – that produces this elegance. So it is basically a gestural elegance we’re looking at, but one that spills over into the shapes, the lines and colours she creates.

Helen Frankenthaler can only be called an ‘action painter’ if that concept allows for circumspection. There always is caution in her work, even when it gets quite experimental. Her shapes interlock with tact. Her running wet colours seem to behave almost diplomatically. Apart from gesture, there is also an elegance of thought in her work. Or rather, an elegance of pictorial thoughtfulness.


After all these years her paintings still seem to be as wet as they were at the moment of their creation; her gestures are still flowing, still streaming – a few inches above the surface. Looking at her work I keep seeing her in her studio, kneeling, trying to control the lake of wet paint she had, just seconds before, herself created.

These giant blots behaved like a flock of nervous sheep, moving in all directions, while she acted as the diligent sheepdog, working hard to keep them in check. This is how she brought her paintings home, safe and sound. The process of herding is still there, it can be seen within the confines of each frame: her paintings are, in the true sense, works of art.