Frankenthaler innovated with paint to create striking works

New York artist Helen Frankenthaler's bursts of color - achieved by pouring thinned paint onto canvas from coffee cans - helped point art in fresh directions after the post-World War II explosion of abstract expressionism.

In 1952, the 23-year-old Frankenthaler hit upon her "soak stain" technique, achieving some of the vibrancy, lightness and pliancy of watercolor by thinning acrylic paint and pouring it on a large, unprimed canvas spread on the floor of her Manhattan studio.

"Mountains and Sea," her breakthrough in pink, blue and green, set a style that critics - although not universally - have applauded for its lyricism and luminous use of color. Frankenthaler's stain technique influenced others such as Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland, giving rise to the Color Field movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Frankenthaler, 83, died Tuesday after a long illness at her home in Darien, Conn. Frankenthaler, who received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002, is survived by her husband, four stepchildren and six nephews and nieces.

She was born Dec. 12, 1928, and grew up amid prestige and comfort on New York's Park Avenue, the youngest of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court Justice, and his wife Martha.

She set out to be a painter after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont in 1949.

Among those taking note was critic Clement Greenberg, a leading advocate of abstract expressionism, with whom Frankenthaler became romantically involved until the mid-1950s. Through him, she met the New York School of painters, including Jackson Pollock, whose drip-painting technique of laying a canvas on the floor and aggressively raining paint upon it would help inspire her own judicious and deliberate way of painting by pouring.

In 1958 Frankenthaler married Robert Motherwell, a leading light from the first generation of New York abstract expressionists. They were divorced after 13 years. In 1994 she married investment banker Stephen M. DuBrul Jr.

An early prominent forum was her mid-1960s inclusion in "Post-Painterly Abstraction," a touring survey curated by Greenberg.

Water, sky and their shifting light are often reflected in her later imagery.

As the years passed, her paintings seemed to make more direct references to the visible world. But they sometimes harked back to the more spontaneous, exuberant and less referential work of her earlier career.

There is "no formula," she said in an interview in 2003. "There are no rules. Let the picture lead you where it must go."

The New York Times contributed.