History And Context
One of the leading figures of Color Field painting, Helen Frankenthaler studied with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo at the Dalton School and in 1946 attended Bennington College. In 1950 she briefly studied with the German-born abstract painter Hans Hofmann at his summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Frankenthaler’s early work consisted mainly of cubist-inspired paintings of studio still lifes. During the 1950s she gradually began to soften the rigid painting style of cubism, introducing painterly gestures in response to the works of Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning who she met in New York after returning from Bennington College.
But it was her friendship with the influential critic Clement Greenberg and their mutual interest in the paintings of the French painter Paul Cézanne who was praised by Greenberg for his “unfading modernity” that lead her to arrive at an innovative painting technique that would set off a new style of abstract painting. Noticing how Cézanne was able to transfer the softness of watercolor to oil painting, Frankenthaler who was already a skilled watercolorist, began to stain unprimed, raw canvas with thinned oil paint, creating her seminal work, Mountains and Sea (1952, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). From then on her technique consisted in working on large sheets of canvas spread on the floor so that she could work on them from all sides, she would pour the thinned paint directly onto the canvas, moved it around with rags or brushes, and let it soak and stain the canvas. Other abstract artist, notably Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Sam Gilliam soon followed her example, and ‘Color Field Painting,” was born.
In the 1960s she began to modify her technique by using acrylic paint in order to create more saturated colors and more solidly defined shapes. She also started to use cropping as a more decisive compositional device. Canyon, with its tightly cropped composition, is dominated by a bold field of red surrounded by blue-green, with only a small area of bare canvas left on its upper edge of the painting. This enabled her to render the intensity of experiencing the sublime monumentality of the Grand Canyon with minimal means to maximal effect.