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Final Project: Helen Frankenthaler & Elaine de Kooning. Compare and Contrast Research Paper.

Helen Frankenthaler. 📸 © Kinfolk 2021.
Elaine De Kooning. 📸

It is difficult to grasp how it took the 1960s for women to receive the recognition that they deserved as an artist. Until 1860, female artists were prohibited from art school, and showcasing. It was that way because the art world was male-dominated and still is. The beginning of the Women’s Movement in 1960, sparked an evolution of female artists, and they gradually received their dues. There is still more to learn about women artists that fell by the wayside and received little support at all.

SuperStock / Getty Images
Artists Michele Wallace, center, and Faith Ringgold, right, photographed by Jan van Raay at an Art Workers Coalition protest at the Whitney Museum in 1971. Jan van Raay

“Where are all the great women artists?”, as said by many. This is an occurring question that is pondered greatly. Where are they? How are females able to relate to women’s representation without examples? To clarify, women’s representation of all such as motherhood, education, work, beliefs, etc.

The above-mentioned points are difficult to accept because there should not be a division between male and female artists in the art world like it is in society. It should be equal in everything that we do including art, and the appreciation for our differentiated perspectives should be respected.

Speaking of respect in regards to women’s perspective through art: Helen Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning are discussed in this compare and contrast research paper. Specifically, the research covers their upbringing, a brief depiction of their personal life, and career.

As for upbringing, Helen Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning were both born in the state of New York. Frankenthaler was born in December 1928, in New York City, while Kooning was born in 1918 in Flatbush, New York. Frankenthaler and Kooning both grew up with progressive and protestant Jewish religious backgrounds. Considering that Frankenthaler’s family emigrated from Germany to the United States, her privileged upbringing was engulfed around a wealthy, and cultured Jewish intellectual family that encouraged their children to pursue professional careers.

On the contrary, Kooning was raised by both of her parents in a middle-class upbringing. Out of four children, she was the eldest of four and was considered to be the ‘favorite’ according to her younger sister. At age five, it is recounted that  Kooning’s room was decorated with painting reproductions, and her mother took her on art-related trips to museums as she supported her artistic endeavors. Unfortunately, at some point in Kooning’s childhood it became saddening. For what was said to be neglect of her children, Kooning’s mother was committed to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center due to a neighbor reporting it.

To emphasize, there is a comparison of their Jewish religious backgrounds, but a slight difference in upbringing. In like manner,  both Frankenthaler and Kooning share more parallelisms like their academic studies. For example, they both showed strong indications of a professional work ethic and were active plus assertive. Frankenthaler and Kooning both attended as well as graduated from high school and college. During their academic experiences, they both befriended and learned well from their artistic peers.

In addition,  Frankenthaler studied and learned from her counterparts like Paul Feeley and Rufino Tamayo. Upon graduation, she furthered her studies with Hans Hofmann and Clement Greenberg in 1950. She was taught to develop her skills in pictorial composition that influenced her early cubist-derived style. Frankenthaler attended Dalton School and Bennington College in Vermont. On the other hand, Kooning attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, Leonardo da Vinci Art School, Hunter College in New York City, and the American Artists School: like Frankenthaler, Kooning learned significantly from social and realist painters.

Paul Feeley teaching.
Rufino Tamayo.
Hans Hofmann.
Clement Greenberg.

Further, Frankenthaler and Kooning’s career soared in its unique way. They both made a significant contribution to the movements of Abstract expressionism. Though, their approach to art techniques and influences are different. Frankenthaler was mostly inspired by important influences like Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann. She used watercolor techniques that derived from originators Paul Cézanne and John Marin which were important early influences to her.

As a whole, Frankenthaler’s style in the collection of her paintings consisted of the use of fluid and solid colors, stains, and blots. Colored stripes. Abstract masses and lyrical gestures. Linear, rounded geometric and symmetrical shapes and forms. From 1963 to 1970 she used the soak stain technique then began to use thicker paints and acrylics. In the 1970s she experimented with harmonizing hues with larger abstract forms. By the late 1980s, her paintings were described as calm, muted, and relaxed brushwork.

🎨Helen Frankenthaler🎨

With the mentioning of technique, one of Frankenthaler’s quotes is interesting as it is resonating. Similar to Jackson Pollock’s philosophy about painting, she expressed, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.” In other words, she further explained that an over-labored piece of work does not appeal to her as beautiful artwork. A beautiful painting to her is an immediate image that leaves the audience to question something not as obvious. To clarify, she best acknowledges the creative process of a person that creates in a synchronized motion with their hand, heart, and mind: without overworking it, they have created something of merit.

The third quote of Frankenthaler further depicts her creative process. She describes that a person’s “true talent” could be free one way and limiting in another:  how they approach certain materials, mediums and subjects. “One is a captive of this necessity and deep urge,” said Frankenthaler. In correlation, this quote resonates with the process behind digital and traditional art.  For example, artists prefer traditional painting over digital techniques to paint and vice versa.

In opposition, Kooning’s style in paintings is abstract and figurative while her drawings show still life and cityscapes. A few other movements that best describe her work are: figurative, representational, primitive, mythological, and realism. Like Frankenthaler, Kooning also experimented with watercolors. Kooning explored more with: graphite, ink, charcoal, gouache, collage, mixed media, oil on paper, canvas, and masonite. To add, more styles and techniques that trace to Kooning are gestural, sculpture, etchings. Also, work that shows surface and contour, stroke and line, color and light, transparency and opacity.

De Kooning made dozens of drawings, sketches, and paintings of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
The saltbox house was where de Kooning produced her last body of work before her death in 1989. 📸 Photography: Gerald McCarthy
Elaine de Kooning in her studio at the University of Georgia, ca. 1977-78. 📸

Artists like Willem de Kooning and Ashhile Gorky influenced Kooning to which they also painted abstractly and figuratively. Similar to Pollock and Frankenthaler’s philosophy, Kooning approached ideas through action painting, meaning creating immediate work. To enumerate, she narrated her identity through her gestural work. She also illustrated everyday life that she lived and experienced in another style. She portrayed male sexuality (exploring the concept of male privilege) through her portraits and of female subjects too.

Like de Kooning, Frankenthaler too went beyond experimenting with various mediums, and subject matter. Frankenthaler abstractedly painted seascapes, earthly landscapes, nature, insects, birds, and swans. Nevertheless, Kooning referenced herself, family members, artists, basketball players, and animals. What is more, about the approach is that Frankenthaler mentioned studying under the influence of Willem de Kooning (Elaine’s husband), and Pollock in an interview with Henry Geldzahler. Like Elanie, Frankenthaler studied with Willem de Kooning too.

Henry Geldzahler 📸 © 2021 Whitney Museum of American Art

Furthermore, Frankenthaler expressed how she initially found Gorky, Pollock, and de Kooning’s approach and vocabulary to be imperative in learning their style. However, after a while, she began to feel inhibited by both Gorky and de Kooning’s style. Specifically about de Kooning, in that same interview, she informed:

🎨Arshile Gorky🎨
🎨Jackson Pollock🎨
🎨Willem de Kooning🎨

“I looked at de Kooning as much as Pollock”…she continues, “I looked at and was influenced by both Pollock and de Kooning and eventually felt that there were many more possibilities for me out of the Pollock vocabulary”

This is to say that Frankenthaler felt like Pollock’s compositions were more to her speed in approach than de Kooning’s. She felt like she could explore more in Pollock’s framework of certain Surrealistic elements, and images like animals, thoughts, jungles, and expressions. Whereas de Kooning’s artwork (that she studied) showed enclosed linear shapes and “applied” brushwork. She describes, ” You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock”. To my understanding, I think she is saying that one cam departs from the technique of Pollock rather than being stagnant to a certain familiarized style.

Helen Frankenthaler, Radius, 1993. Nine-color woodcut. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / BONO / Tyler Graphic Ltd.
Beginnings, 1994 by Helen Frankenthaler. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation

Equally important, about style, de Kooning’s approach to subjects and mediums was different from Frankenthaler’s. De Kooning used her husband, male friends, lovers, and public figures as references in her portraits. When she studied under her husband, he was her harshest critic. Sources say that he destroyed many of her drawings until she drew what was up to his standard. She was taught to approach still life drawings finely and accurately that showed clear linear definition, and  “precise modulated shading”.

Elaine de Kooning, “Willem de Kooning” (c. 1952), oil on panel. Board: 38 5/8 x 25 1/2 x 1/2 inches Frame: 50 x 36 5/8 x 3 1/2 inches. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (© Elaine de Kooning Trust)
ELAINE DE KOONING, BASKETBALL #1-A. 📸 (C) 2019 Sotheby’s.
Pelé / Elaine de Kooning (12 Mar 1918 – 1 Feb 1989) | Oil on canvas, 1982 |/Private collection.

The training she received from Willem, her husband, allowed her to develop her skills as a technical artist that strived for precision and charm. Speaking of reflection, there is a quote of de Kooning’s that reflects the creative process of painting. I think that it is similar to Pollock’s and Frankenthaler’s philosophy, but more so Yoko Ono’s. When the painting is described, de Kooning expressed, “A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image. It seems like this quote mirrors the philosophy of Yoko Ono because they both emphasize the “event” (present state of mind).

All four artists have expressed that a painting is more about the immediate process of creating something in sync with one’s head and hands. It should be clarified that de Kooning’s quote mirrors best with Yoko Ono, even though they all essentially say the same thing. This is to say that de Kooning was very focused on the event. Focused on what was happening while creating rather than the result. To put it another way, the process matters more. Another point about de Kooning’s work is that she expressed her interest in work that showed character rather than an applied and/or imposed style.

It is funny because de Kooning’s style is described or researched, as you may say, but she was less interested in the concept of style. As for character? I wonder what she meant by that? I assume she was interested in works of art that showed character without forced representations of elements in a painting. Something that is uniquely created by a person that evoked a feeling of humor, or created interesting imagery from an unconventional approach. Perhaps, she just meant a simple characterized painting.

As mentioned priorly, de Kooning made both abstract and figurative paintings together with drawings (still life, cityscapes, and portraits). She studied under Willem de Kooning, Josef Albers, R. Buckminster Fuller, and Mercedes Cunningham. She had also done collaborations with Joomla Sander being her long-time collaborator as they posed for each other. De Kooning informed that she loved writing just as much as painting, but painting was her nature. She had a fascination with portraiture.

For those who are unaware of portraiture, it is a portrait through painting, photographs, or sculpture. It is a representation of a person that is similar to that person’s physical characteristics, personality, likeness, and mood. Kooning’s dedication to her portraitures stemmed from a careful study of each person. To explain, she would find the characteristic pose that would define them. Her brother Conrad, best describes her process: he informed, ‘She achieves a sense of distinguishing facial features and captures each subject’s presence with sharp, jagged strokes of paint”.

With the information from Kooning’s brother, Conrad, it is apparent that her process was thorough, effective, and professional. Instead of being thorough, Frankenthaler’s process was rebellious. For example, Frankenthaler conveyed how there are no rules to art, and that is how it is born. To clarify, she means that is how a breakthrough happens. When an artist ignores or goes against rules, the invention is clear. Kooning and Frankenthaler had interesting philosophies and a massive legacy that they both left behind. Whether one followed rules than the other and vice or versa: they still left their mark on the world. In essence, they are two of many female artists who changed the art world.

Starting with Elaine de Kooning, I take great interest in her, 36×54″, oil on canvas 1975 painting of American painter, Robert De Niro Sr. (Also, the father to actor Robert

American artist Robert De Niro Sr. 📸 The New York Times
Portrait of Robert De Niro Sr. by His Son – The New York Times
Elaine de Kooning’s 1973 portrait shows a scowling Robert de Niro Sr. Elaine de Kooning. 1975. Oil on canvas of Robert De Niro’s portrait.
📸 Joseph Hu/National Portrait Gallery

De Niro). It looks very bold, sophisticated and shows great movement. I researched a photo of Robert De Niro Sr and it looks just like him! The colors are just astonishing to me, the blue applied paint especially grasps my interest. Such lines and colors of yellow (maybe ochre), browns, white, grey, black: all blend well together in a chaotic but wavy way. The word wavy to me means cool. Even though the painting seems chaotic in an interesting way, it also appears calm and/or muted. To me, it is both drastic and inviting.

Another painting is drastic yet inviting, but not of Kooning’s. This painting belongs to Helen Frankenthaler. Western Dream is a 1957 oil on unsized, unprimed 70×86 in canvas painting. According to, this painting is described as a hallucinatory suggestion of landscape, sky breeze, heat, and turf together with hints of flora and fauna that are scattered throughout. I agree with this description because the elements are spread in a lucid way similar to Kooning’s. Instead, this painting depicts nature rather than a representational person (portrait).

Helen Frankenthaler. 1957. Oil on canvas titled Western Dream. 📸 © 2021 Artsy.

It was a treat to research Helen Frankenthaler and Elaine de Kooning. I enjoy learning about female artists and it keeps me informed about women that paved the way in the art world. To mention, ALL women for that matter, paved the way for the younger generations of female artists. As a female artist myself, I learned two lessons from both of them. I learned from Frankenthaler that it is free to break the rules to an artist, and I gained an understanding from Kooning that art, specifically painting, is a verb and not a noun (action matters). 

Works Cited “Paintings – Artworks.” Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Accessed December 13, 2021. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Accessed December 13, 2021. 

“Elaine De Kooning: Artist Profile.” NMWA, May 28, 2020. Accessed December 13, 2021. 

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