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A Color (Field) Story — How One Woman Changed the Course of Abstract Expressionism

In 1957, the photographer Gordon Parks came to Helen Frankenthaler’s studio to photograph her for a feature in Life magazine titled, “Women Artists In Ascendance”. The series of photographs shows a woman politely seated on the ground, twenty-nine-year-old Frankenthaler is completely surrounded by her paintings — the floors and the walls a complete atmosphere of the marks that made her famous. It wouldn’t be until 1970 that the term Color Field painting would be coined, but this photograph is a perfect example of the painters of this movement’s unique contributions to the history of art. Unconcerned with imbuing their paintings with meaning from topics outside the canvas — like politics, or religion — the Color Field painters shared a desire to create swaths of color to immerse oneself within the canvas space.

Twenty-nine-year-old Helen Frankenthaler is completely surrounded by her paintings

Twenty-nine-year-old Frankenthaler, surrounded by her paintings.

By the time Frankenthaler was photographed in her studio, she wasn’t even thirty years old, but had already invented the “soak stain” painting technique that was the conceptual core of the Color Field painting movement. Helen was young, eager and well-connected when she visited an exhibition of recent works by Jackson Pollock at Betty Parsons Gallery in New York City. It was then and there that she decided she wanted “to master [his] language”.

Just like Pollock had done before her, she unrolled canvas and laid it down on her studio floor. Unlike Pollock, who opted for thick, industrial, house paint, Helen thinned down her paints with turpentine, allowing her to create vibrant washes of colors that ethereally melded rather than opaquely obscured one another. With this novel technique — paint flushing and fusing directly into the threads — the Color Field, and the Color Field movement, came into being.

The emulators of this technique were many, and experienced much success. Morris Louis made an entire artistic career in this style of applying diluted pigment to raw canvas. He was prolific and worked exclusively in series. Today you can find one of his 150 Unfurled paintings at museums all around the United States, most countries in Europe and over ten galleries in Japan. The Unfurled paintings are as large as murals and all consist of thin streams of colors flowing from the left and right sides of the canvas towards the lower center of the canvas, never crossing paths. You see the veins of color making their way along the weft and warp of fabric. You also confront an enormous field of simply pure canvas. This is a crux of the Color Field painting, color not in the service of representing anything other than itself, never losing sight of the materials that make the magic.

Morris Louis's Unfurled paintings

Morris Louis Unfurled paintings.

Unlike many female artists of her generation, Helen received much praise in her time. Morris Louis himself even credited her with building a "bridge between Pollock and what was possible." This admiration was shared by another Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, though his work was much more concerned with forms like the circle and the line rather than the organic gestures of Frankenthaler. Lucky for all of us, Color Field paintings were widely valued and collected, staple pieces in modern collections of museums all around the world. Next time you encounter a Color Field painting — on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (which houses many of these seminal works) — think of Helen. Just 24 years old, mixing turpentine and paint in an empty coffee cup, trying to make her paint fluid enough to capture the connection between her head and her heart with only the motion of her hand.