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Helen Frankenthaler - Mountains and Sea (1952)

Size : 219.4 cm x 297.8 cm

Medium - Oil and Charcoal on unprimed canvas

Origin : USA

Currently placed at - A part of the collection of Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, given on extended loan to the National Gallery of Art - Washington DC

Helen Frankenthaler was just 23 when she created this historic painting, it was in the fall of 1952. Mountains and Sea was created using the soak stain technique where paint is thinned by adding turpentine or kerosene and painted on an unprimed canvas. The first move was to draw and not paint, so she made lines in charcoal. Helen recalls years later that she may have been impatient to paint. And a combination of laziness and impatience together made her paint directly on an unprimed canvas. The paint seeps in through the canvas and creates a stunning effect. Some might say it looked like a rag for wiping brushes but Helen felt that each element was perfectly mixed and stained. The colors had worked in and around the charcoal underdrawings. Helen was lauded for her material experimentation as she is considered one of the integral members of the Abstract Expressionists.

The painting was titled after the seaside cliffs Helen visited in Nova Scotia the summer before, Mountains and Sea was on her many abstract paintings which evoke memories of landscapes. Frankenthaler insists that she is not an action painter and credits the fluidity of the paint, not the motion of the painter, primary to the animation of her work.

There were several family events which drove Helen to create this painting. Her mother had suffered a mysterious illness which turned out to be Parkinson's. By fall 1952, the situation was very grim. In addition, her two sisters were both expecting and Helen, who was the youngest, was not even ready to be married! She felt her own life had stopped. It was in this turbulent time that she returned to art with a new focus. "Each crisis, if properly realized, can turn into production" she wrote on October 6th.

After graduating from Bennington College in Vermont, Frankenthaler made her debut in New York was soon recognized as a talented new member of the group later known as the second generation New York School.

During her lifetime, Frankenthaler showed extensively in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Paris, San Francisco, Chicago, and London, among others. Her work belongs in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In addition to her paintings, Frankenthaler also made ceramics and steel sculptures and maintained an extensive printmaking practice. Mountains and Sea, seems to be a form of dance, forever suspended in some pause of time. And behind all of that color is the struggle of the artist who fought to drive the darkness away.

Manesha Peiris (2021)