Curator Emeritus, John Elderfield: When Helen Frankenthaler first saw Jackson Pollock's paintings in the early 1950s, it was truly a revelation to her. So what did she take from Pollock? We know that Pollock's paintings were done on the floor that it was an activity of making a sequence of marks and then learning from what happened and adding to them.
Pollock's black and white paintings, done with thinned down enamel paint give the sense of the paint beginning to seep into the canvas surface, bleeding into the picture. And Frankenthaler began to use thinned down oil paint allowing it to soak into the unprimed cotton canvas. She picks up on Pollock' lesson, but transforms it by means of color. It was as if the color and the surface were one thing, the kind of staining, dyeing principle, which led eventually to this being called color stain painting.
There's a deliberate element of real ambiguity in this picture. One thinks of Rorschach tests, namely the kind of psychological testing done by showing people ink blots and asking them to free associate the meanings. She helps us with the title, and I think that her association is really the interesting one here.
Presumably she's referring to this center portion surrounded by the vertical lines running up the middle of the picture. This sense of a movement up the picture surface and of Jacob, who sees angels in his dream going up and down the ladder between earth and heaven.
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."