frankenthaler mountain and sea
Mountains and Sea is a 1952 painting by American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler.   Painted when Frankenthaler was 23 years old, Mountains and Sea was her first professionally exhibited work.  Though initially panned by critics, it would become her most influential and best known canvas.  
In the summer of 1952, Frankenthaler went on a road trip to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, during which she painted landscapes there using foldable easel equipment.  Mountains and Sea was painted after this trip, and while the painting is not a direct depiction of a coastline in Nova Scotia, it contains elements that suggest a kind of seascape or landscape, like the strokes of blue that join with areas of green. 
While Frankenthaler’s works from the mid-1950s are more densely painted, in 1956 her paintings opened up again, regaining the airiness characteristic of earlier years. Paintings such as Eden (1956) and Nude (1958) show Frankenthaler’s tendency to leave large portions of canvas uncovered, giving the light-filled negative spaces in her work equal pictorial weight with the painted areas, a practice adopted by Louis and Noland. By not working in series, Frankenthaler allows each painting its own identity. The diversity of her work, evident even in the brief period represented by the select group exhibited, demonstrates her experimental approach, as well as the varied experiences and impressions that influenced her paintings, ranging from personal biography to the history of art.
Titled after the seaside cliffs Frankenthaler had visited in Nova Scotia the previous summer, Mountains and Sea is one of her many abstractions─including Autumn Farm and Acres (both 1959)─that evoke memories of landscapes. The organic qualities of Frankenthaler’s painting, however, have as much to do with the properties of the artist’s materials as with any actual reference to nature. Frankenthaler, who insists that she is not an Action painter, makes the fluidity of the paint─ not the motion of the painter, as in Jackson Pollock’s drip technique─primary to the animation of her work.
Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on unsized, unprimed canvas, 219.4 x 297.8 cm (National Gallery of Art, Washington)
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Despite the esthetic and historical interest of the works in this exhibition, the installation itself seems rather unnuanced. Once again, the Guggenheim’s interest seems to be largely given over to name recognition. For example why consign the major opus Mountains and Sea, the raisonne d’etre of the entire show, to a side wall? And why squeeze big paintings into small spaces? Works such as Open Wall (1953) and Madridscape (1959), illustrated in the catalogue but absent from the show, hint at Frankenthaler’s sense of a panoramic conception for her work: big fields of color that need to breathe in big fields of canvas.
Still, the Guggenheim is to be congratulated for mounting the exhibition, not least because Color Field painting has been so long out of fashion critically and stylistically. Perhaps the museum’s rumored curatorial budget-crunch will have the positive result of smaller, more focused and digestible shows such as this one, rather than the recent cavalcade of overblown retrospectives and continental blockbusters. For a museum whose designer was a classic Modernist, the motto “less is more” should be a trusted guide to future programming.
Besides her paintings, Frankenthaler is known for her inventive lithographs, etchings and screen prints she produced since 1961.
Unlike many of her painter colleagues at the time, Helen who was born in New York City in 1928, came from a prosperous Manhattan family. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a Supreme Court Judge and Martha Lowenstein, an immigrant from Germany. Helen was so interested in art from an early age, she would dribble nail polish into a sink of water to watch the colour flow.
The artist’s breakout painting, the 1952 “Mountains and Sea,” introduced her new technique. It flabbergasted both critics and fellow artists, essentially establishing her career and greatly influencing a new generation of painters in what would become known as Color Field painting. As Sandler recalls, “She figured out something interesting and original to do with Pollock, and she sort of stood out doing that.”
Last November at Christie’s New York, for example, “Royal Fireworks,” a huge acrylic-on-canvas from 1975 sold for a record $818,500 (est. $250,000-350,000).
Living masters have it rough, and Helen Frankenthaler has been living as a master for over half a century. In 1952, at the age of only twenty-three, she created Mountains and Sea, an iconic painting that forever secured her place in the history of art. It was a work that at once defined Frankenthaler’s style and changed the visual texture of abstract painting. Mountains and Sea built on the achievements of Jackson Pollock with its poured paint and rolled-out canvas—but it also outdid Pollock. With its thinned pigments soaked directly into linen, it displayed a new artistic temperament, subsuming the artistic ego into forms of color that absorbed the Abstract Expressionist gesture into an all-over stain.
In honor of Helen Frankenthaler, the great artist who died today at age 83, we offer these essays on her life’s work and the painting that first made her famous, Mountains and Sea (1952).