Immediate Abstraction: Helen Frankenthaler and the Color Field

Helen Frankenthaler's Adirondacks 1992

“Adirondacks 1992” by Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) became one of the major artists of the abstract expressionist movement. Her pathway toward her abstract art began with an early Cubist style of work. As the works of other abstract artists became more widely known, they also had an impact on Frankenthaler’s own development. The movement away from representational styles captured Frankenthaler’s imagination and intellect.

Growth of Abstract Expressionism

One of the key elements of Abstract Expressionism as it grew during the 1940s is the striving toward a sense of the spontaneous. The desire was to circumvent the viewer’s expectations by removing recognizable representational forms and shapes. In the early stages, many of the artists still desired to connect to emotive states by connecting to mythic references, even if the images did not present representational imagery. But the challenge of aiming at greater spontaneity pushed some artists, such as Frankenthaler, even further into abstraction.

Development of Color Field

By the 1960s, Frankenthaler had become focused on symmetry in her painting, using large spaces of single color. The general aim of the Color Field approach was to further distance artist and viewer from religious or mythic content, eliminating the emotional and personal effect. This included drawing away from the touches of the individual artist such as brush strokes and other idiosyncratic techniques. Color itself became the focus of the content of the Color Field painters.

Frankenthaler’s Aim

Frankenthaler herself strove to produce works that would strike the viewer as being immediate. Beyond spontaneity, she wanted to create the sense of freshness, as if the work had only that moment appeared in existence. In Barbara Rose’s biography of the artist, Frankenthaler offers the following insight into her aims.

“A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it—well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that—there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.” (Rose, Frankenthaler, 1975. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., p. 85)

Frankenthaler sought to provoke an immediate response, circumventing the expectations of the viewer.

Beyond Representation

Diana Hobson's The Lioness

Diana Hobson’s The Lioness

Another artist who strives for the immediate response is Diana Hobson. But where the Color Field artists focus more on process, Hobson works toward the final effect, building toward the emotional connection. While Frankenthaler strove for the “this was just made” impact, not wanting the stages of creation to show, Hobson carefully considers how to achieve the emotive result.  Hobson seeks to get around viewer expectations and anticipations of the subject, and provokes connections by her choices of colors and titles. Her piece “The Lioness” catches the eye with a large, tawny colored space, and then lets the rest of the composition imply the energy and movement of the title subject. This spontaneity may not be the immediacy that Frankenthaler strove for, yet it does do the job of leaping past the viewer’s expectations to land in the midst of the emotive heart of the subject.

Abstract art offers many varieties of works, for the artists have different intentions for their creations. Once you start exploring the possibilities offered, you can find many intriguing experiences in the art. They are certainly available in Hobson’s works, which can be seen at her studio in Venice, California.


“Adirondacks, 1992” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1992. Reproduced here under Fair Use Practices for the purposes of instruction and information.

“The Lioness” by Diana Hobson, 1999. Used by permission.


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