“I kept the same signature, and the same indescribable sensation in my painting that is not realistic per se but makes people associate and in some way, feel many things. The elements are never merely circles, squares and stripes.”
Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), was among the most influential painters of the mid-20thcentury. Frankenthaler was influenced by Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s, developing her own distinctive style and language, she became a leading figure as part of the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. She pioneered the soak stain technique, allowing medium to take form and compose the painting on raw canvas.
Mountains and Seais considered to be Helen Frankenthaler’s breakthrough artwork in the 1950s, a motivating work for artists like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland in the shift towards Colour Field Painting that later emerged in the 1960s. The piece was painted in her New York studio in the October of 1952 after a summer trip to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Her time spent on the North Atlantic coast feels heavily influential in this painting, although completely abstract, the painting evokes a feeling of memory of place. Through stained auras of colour, the landscape glimpses through as though suspended in her mental space as fragmentations of remembrance and perpetual experience. Proposed by the title of Mountains and sea, we can begin to conceive these painted abstract forms as contours of the North East Canadian landscape. Charcoal lines frame washes of greens, blues and pink, defining mountain lines, rocks and water. Light green bodies the land as if cliff edges beckoning the ocean, whereas red mountain tops fade in the distance ascending down into the pale pink ground where earth and water merge, contouring pools of translucent blues like a rocky shoreline meeting the sea. Landscape allusions ebb away and flow back, pulsating ‘like reverberations of deep perceptions’ - Karen Wilkin, an independent curator and art critic specialising in 20th-century modernism, here analyses how Frankenthaler captures the changing light and atmosphere of the Canadian landscape in Mountains and Sea through the watercolour ‘loops’, ‘puddles’ and ‘whorls’, features derived from the physical landscape and act as reflections of physical and internal experience in nature. Frankenthaler once said in discussion about Mountains and Sea, “The Landscapes were in my arms as I did it,”
1952, was the year that Helen Frankenthaler’s pioneering soak stain movement began. Art at this time became more about liberation and freedom rather than control and literal representation, deferring away from traditional pictorial landscapes for which ‘the lone artist did not want the world to be different, he wanted his canvas to be a world’. With boundless opportunities to paint within Abstract art, artists like Frankenthaler were able to express themselves not only through the ‘action’ of painting but within ‘colour fields’, a theme within her practise, of feeling, emotion and subconsciousness to signify their existence within the world but within the process of painting itself. Frankenthaler’s metaphysical transaction with landscape is manifested through her stain technique and process of pouring, through the embodiment of nature and the materiality of paint. Her revolutionary approach to painting introduced using oil paint as though a watercolour, to form luminous colour fields; sometimes allowing the flow and materiality of the medium to compose her paintings. Soft stains are absorbed deep into the cotton duck, sometimes forming turpentine halos and blurred lines of bleeding colours, puddles of colour engulf detailed splatters, ghosting traces of initial impact. The pools of paint seep and blend as they saturate the surface in its journey to reach and stretch as far as the medium will take its form. By allowing the material to compose Mountain and Sea, the medium is given a life of its own extruding the vitality of the landscape, a fluidity and softness that effectively resonates with lucid imagery of the mind’s thought palette.