Helen Frankenthaler. Jacob's Ladder. 1957

Helen Frankenthaler

Jacob's Ladder


On view
Oil on canvas
9' 5 3/8" x 69 7/8" (287.9 x 177.5 cm)
Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein
Object number
© 2015 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Painting and Sculpture
This work is on view on Floor 5, in Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 12, with 14 other works online.
Helen Frankenthaler has 57 works online.
There are 2,104 paintings online.

Although it shares a name with the biblical tale of Jacob's dreamed ascent toward heaven, and also with an ancient Egyptian toy, Frankenthaler insisted this work had no illustrational intention: "The picture developed (bit by bit while I was working on it) into shapes symbolic of an exuberant figure and ladder, therefore Jacob's Ladder." Working in New York in the 1950s, Frankenthaler painted large-scale unprimed canvases on the floor to explore new ways of handling distinctively thinned paint. The artist said she borrowed from Jackson Pollock her "concern with line, fluid line, calligraphy, and ... experiments with line not as line but as shape."

Gallery label from 2010

Additional text

The delicately colored Jacob's Ladder shows compositional echoes ranging back to Cubism and the early abstractions of Vasily Kandinsky, but as a young New York artist in the 1950s, Frankenthaler was most influenced by the Abstract Expressionists. Like Jackson Pollock, she explored working on canvases laid on the floor (rather than mounted on an easel or wall), a technique opening new possibilities in the handling of paint, and therefore in visual appearances. Letting paint fall onto canvas emphasized its physicality, and the physicality of the support too. Frankenthaler also admired the scale of Pollock's work, and she took from him, she said, her "concern with line, fluid line, calligraphy, and . . . experiments with line not as line but as shape."

Frankenthaler departed from Pollock's practice in the way she used areas of color and in her distinctive thinning of paint so that it soaked into her unprimed canvases. Because the image is so plainly embedded in the cloth, its presence as flat pigmented canvas tends to overrule any illusionistic reading of it—a priority in the painting of the time. Nor should the work's title suggest any preplanned illustrational intention. "The picture developed (bit by bit while I was working on it) into shapes symbolic of an exuberant figure and ladder," Frankenthaler said, "therefore Jacob's Ladder."

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art , MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 219

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