Project Description


(1978) (RT :30)
Series: The Originals: Women In Art 
(Produced and Directed by Perry Miller Adato)

As early as 1972, in the first major retrospective volume treating Helen Frankenthaler’s work to that date, art critic Barbara Rose writes: “Among the radiant stained canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, are some of the most beautiful as well as the most historically significant works of the 1950’s and 1960’s.” In his trenchant review of Helen Frankenthaler’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art which encompasses Frankenthaler’s achievement to 1989, art critic John Russell states: “These images are the product of an imagination as exempt from current obsessions as it is possible to be. They have weight and style and presence.  They don’t cloy, either.” Helen Frankenthaler’s long and remarkable career spans more than five decades, from 1950 thru the 1990’s and this film biography made in 1978 makes clear why she is celebrated today as one of American’s greatest modern women painters.

Precocious, beautiful, talented, she burst upon the hot post-war New York Art scene in 1951 with her first one-person show at the avant-garde Tibor de Nagy Gallery, when she was only 23.  No financially-strapped struggling artist, her father was a well known Justice of the New York State Supreme Court who adored and indulged his gifted youngest child. Her cultured, supportive family did not question their teenage daughter’s firm decision to become an artist. The young student’s original talents flourished in Bennington College’s free experimental ambiance.  There and elsewhere, she encountered exceptional teachers including artists Paul Feeley, Rufino Tamayo and Hans Hofmann.

Filmed in her home on East 94 Street, Frankenthaler talks warmly and candidly of her life and career.  Discovered in a group show in 1950 by influential art critic Clement Greenberg, she was soon involved with the Abstract Expressionists, whose early explosive works, rejected by many critics and by a shocked public, found its champion in Clement Greenberg.  Greenberg became Helen Frankenthaler’s mentor and close companion. The “first generation” Abstract Expressionists included Willem deKooning, Robert Motherwell (who she would marry in 1958) and Jackson Pollock whose major exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 “overwhelmed” her.“  In the film, Frankenthaler emphasizes that exposure to Pollock’s work was the turning point in her art, a clinching point of departure.  On-camera, Frankenthaler speaks of Pollock’s freedom to “break the rules,” a freedom that allowed painters to put the canvas on the floor instead of upon an easel, to dispense with a brush, spilling or dripping the paint on the raw canvas and to make use of Surrealism’s automatism instead of totally controlling what appeared on the canvas.

Helen Frankenthaler is widely credited with being the one who was able to absorb Pollock’s discoveries and to convert them to a form that was “useable,” a break-though for herself and for many other painters, including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who have avowed their debt to her.  Back in her own studio, Frankenthaler placed a large canvas on the floor, but she disliked dripping the paint, and besides, to imitate this Pollock technique went strongly against the grain of her independent spirit. Instead, she thinned the thick paint and by using thinned acrylic paint on unprimed canvas, she achieved for the first time, in her break-through painting, Mountains and Sea, something close to a watercolor effect. In his on-camera interview in the film, painter Friedl Dzubas, who shared a studio with Helen in the early 1950’s, describes the moment of the creation of this now-famous painting and Frankenthaler’s excited and uncertain reaction to what she had done.  E.A. Carmean Jr., Director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, illuminates for the viewer Frankenthaler’s innovation in Mountains and Sea, stating that she had created a new technique of staining the raw canvas with color that would become known as “color field” painting.

Taking advantage of a timely retrospective at the downtown Emmerick Gallery of many of Frankenthaler’s smaller paintings which are closely related to her larger works of the same period, we were able to film Frankenthaler on camera as personal guide, commenting on individual pictures and the evolution of her style. The film concludes with a remarkable, unprecedented sequence, where Frankenthaler for the first and only time, allowed a cameraman to film her, in intimate close-up, at each stage in the act of creating a large painting from its first moment to its final state.


“In the 1950’s, at the age of twenty-four, American artist Helen Frankenthaler painted a work entitled Mountain and Sea; it was to influence and change the direction of an entire generation of abstract painters. This film traces the development of Frankenthaler’s work since the early 1950’s. She talks about the influences on her life and work: nature, her father, Jackson Pollock, DeKooning, Motherwell and other artists of the New York School. With her special “poured stain” techniques, she developed a highly personal language all her own. In an extraordinary sequence, the camera follows Frankenthaler as she mixes, spills and smudges the paints with her hands onto a canvas placed on the floor.”
– Montreal International Festival of Film on Art


Director: Perry Miller Adato
Producer: Perry Miller Adato
Camera: Chuck Levey, Gene Searchinger, John Gordon, Hilary Harris
Associate Producer: Mary Bell
Film Editors: Mavis Lyons Smull, Suzanne Bauman
Assistant Editor: Paul Neshamkin
Camera Animation: Christopher Kogler WNET/13, Graphics Henry Lykes, John Anthes
Production Coordinator: Donald Sussman
Production Assistant: Ruth Gutman
Production Secretary: Debby Corper
Music Supervisor: John Adams
Assistant: Rosemary FishelPhotographers:
Walter Auerbach
Rudolph Burckhardt
Geoffrey Clements
Jerry Cooke
Jane Corkin
Andre Emmerich
Burt Glinn (Magnum Photos)
Ernest Haas
C. Brownie Harris
Jon Henry
F.K. Lloyd
Alexander Liberman
Hans Namuth
Eric Pollitzer
Malcolm Varon
Cora Kelly Ward
Erward Youkilis

Special Thanks to:
Maureen St. Onge
Andre Emmerich
Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publisher of Frankenthaler by Barbara Rose
National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution
National Gallery of Art
Bennington College
Ann Freedman
E.C. Goossen
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Marjorie Iseman
Janie C. Lee Gallery
Marlborough Gallery
David Mirvish Gallery
Museum of Modern Art
Betty Parsons Gallery
Lane Slate
Deborah Staats
TVC Film Lab

Helen Frankenthaler
E.A Carmean, Curator of 20th Century Art, National Gallery of Art
Friedl Dzubas, painter
Andre Emmerich, gallery owner, Frankenthaler’s art dealer

A Production of WNET/13
© 1978 Educational Broadcasting Corporation