Frankenthaler and Motherwell: A Painterly Marriage

Motherwell in white and yellow ochre_Frankenthaler runningscape

(left) Robert Motherwell, In White and Yellow Ochre, 1961. Oil, charcoal, ink, tempera and paper collage on paper, 40 7/8 x 27 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, acquired 1965. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY (right) Helen Frankenthaler, Runningscape, 1962. Oil on canvas, 32 in x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Gift of Gifford and Joann Phillips, 2009; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Two of the Phillips’s most cherished Abstract Expressionist artists, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, shared more than a style of painting: they were also married from 1958 to 1971. Currently, a group of the couple’s works from the museum’s permanent collection are on display in neighboring galleries. Four of my favorites are Canyon and Runningscape, both by Frankenthaler, and In White and Yellow Ochre and Chi Ama, Crede by Motherwell.

Studying these works in a group, I began to think of the differences in the two artists’ styles, despite the fact that all four of the works were created in the early 1960s. I compared the soft applications of oil and acrylic in both of Frankenthaler’s works to the more aggressive elements in Motherwell’s. Utilizing varied textures, Motherwell’s In White and Yellow Ochre combines mediums with collaged materials, resulting in a harsher design and abstracted contours. In contrast, Frankenthaler uses oil paint like watercolor in Runningscape, thinning it into washes that bleed into each other to create a fluid design. Each of the artists’ larger pieces—Frankenthaler’s Canyon and Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede—also contain these distinctions, Canyon being composed of expansive fields of saturated color and Chi Ama, Crede of jagged applications in dull maroons and browns.

Frankenthaler canyon_Motherwell chi ama crede

(left) Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 46 1/8 in x 52 3/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001; © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (right) Robert Motherwell, Chi Ama, Crede, 1962. Oil on canvas, 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald A. Brown, 1998; Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

What is interesting is that both artists were influenced by the same group of contemporaries: Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. They also created these works in the early years of their marriage, when they were likely collaborating and comparing painting techniques. Their differences are thus results of their own personal styles retained throughout their independent careers. Frankenthaler’s paintings are distinctly feminine, whereas Motherwell’s works have a more aggressive appearance of masculinity. This pair of artists serve as a unique look at the female and male perspectives on a specific movement of art.

Annie Dolan, Marketing and Communications Intern

Helen Frankenthaler, 1928-2011

Helen Frankenthaler, Canyon, 1965. Acrylic on canvas, 44 x 52 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions and funds given by Gifford Phillips, 2001.

Abstract painter Helen Frankenthaler has died in Connecticut at the age of 83. Her painting, Canyon, 1965, is a favorite here at the Phillips and often on display. The canvas is stained by rich pools of poured paint, a method that would be adopted by other fellow members of the abstract expressionist movement. During a powerfully inspirational visit to Frankenthaler’s New York studio in April of 1953, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland saw her painting Mountains and Sea (1952) and were deeply moved by her inventive use of color and paint, bringing back techniques that would serve as the foundation of the Washington Color School painters. As quoted in Gerald Nordland’s essay, “Washington Color Painters: the first generation,” Louis said, “[Frankenthaler] showed us a way to think about and use color . . . She was a bridge between [Jackson] Pollock and what was possible.”

In Honor of Women’s Equality Day

Berthe Morisot, Two Girls, c. 1894. Oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 21 1/4 inches. Acquired 1925. Paintings, 1390, French.

We’re celebrating Women’s Equality Day, so proclaimed because women in the U.S. were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920, with a look at some of our favorite women artists in the Phillips’s collection. You’ll see the above work by Berthe Morisot on display in the galleries, along with Helen Frankenthaler‘s Runningscape, several works by Georgia O’Keeffe, and pieces by Dorothy Dehner. Staff favorites include Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Jackie FerraraLoren MacIver, Irene Rice Pereira, Alma Thomas, and of course, Marjorie Phillips. Who are some of your favorite women artists?