Spiritualist 1973

Helen Frankenthaler, Spiritualist, 1973; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Helen Frankenthaler/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler makes stain paintings like Spiritualist by pouring thinned pigment onto an unstretched canvas spread on her studio floor. The paint soaks into the raw fibers of the untreated canvas, literally staining the fabric. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Frankenthaler creates large-scale paintings that are affected by chance. She lets her colors flow freely into shapes, manipulating them only minimally with her brush or fingers. Frankenthaler distinguishes herself from her Abstract Expressionist counterparts by using a lighter palette and trading emotional intensity for a calmer, often lyrical mood.

In works like Spiritualist, the play of overlapping colors and forms creates a sense of visual space. But the weave of the canvas is always visible, which creates a tension between surface and depth. Frankenthaler reintroduced short, curving black lines, like those at the right side of Spiritualist, into her work in the early 1970s. Some scholars have attributed these lines and her move toward further abstraction to major changes in her life: a new studio, the release of the first major book on her work, and her divorce from artist Robert Motherwell.