ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Helen Frankenthaler, one of the major abstract expressionist painters of the 20th century, died today at her home in Connecticut. She was 83 years old. At a time when the art world was still dominated by men, Frankenthaler's abstract canvases earned the respect of critics and influenced generations of artists.
NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In the early 1950s, Helen Frankenthaler started painting with her canvases flat on the floor after seeing Jackson Pollock do it.
HELEN FRANKENTHALER: I think what I took from that was the gesture and the attitude and the floor workings. But I wanted to work with shapes in a very different way.
ROSE: As Frankenthaler told NPR in 1988, she developed her own technique of pouring diluted paints directly onto raw canvas, then manipulating it with mops and sponges to create vivid fields of color.
FRANKENTHALER: What evolved for me out of my needs and invention had to do with pouring paint and staining paint. It's a kind of marrying the paint into the woof and weave of the canvas itself so that they become one in the same.
ROSE: Starting with the 1952 masterpiece "Mountains and Sea," Frankenthaler produced a body of work that was a major influence on the painters of the 1960s and beyond.
Betsy Broun directs the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
BETSY BROUIN: She really helped pull art of the sort of angst and trauma of the abstract expressionists - what I think of as the wartime generation - and into a lighter, more lyrical and more beautiful kind of modernism. And I think it was kind of a relief. It was a liberation.
ROSE: Helen Frankenthaler was born into a prosperous family in Manhattan, the youngest daughter of a state supreme court judge. After college, she moved back to New York and struck up a romantic relationship with prominent critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced her to the major players of the art world, nearly all of them men. She later married and divorced the painter, Robert Motherwell.
Frankenthaler did not try to be a spokesperson for feminism, but her very success was an inspiration, says Ann Temkin, chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
ANN TEMKIN: What she was up against, in an era where art was an extremely macho business in every way, was considerable. And, for me, there's a great deal of admiration just in the courage and the vision that she brought to what she did.
ROSE: Frankenthaler had her critics, too. They dismissed her work as merely beautiful, somehow lacking the depth of her fellow abstract expressionists. But Earl Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, rejects that charge.
EARL POWELL: It is not cloying. It's not pretty in a pejorative sense, but it really rises to, I think, challenge the best work of her time.
ROSE: For her part, Frankenthaler seemed to look beyond her contemporaries for inspiration to the drawings of the old masters, as she told NPR in 1989.
FRANKENTHALER: I often look at an old master not in terms of its subject matter, but of the placement of color and line. I want to get at why. What's making this work? If I were doing this picture, what would I be doing? What would I be feeling? I often say I'm swiping this color or I'm swiping the placement of these colors on this surface of my picture.
ROSE: In much the same way that artists will continue swiping the colors and lines in Helen Frankenthaler's works. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.