Taking up the drip technique developed by Jackson Pollock, in which the artist painted by dropping paint from above onto a canvas on the floor, Frankenthaler turned it to her own use, thinning her paints and using unprimed canvas so that the pigments would soak into the fabric rather than sit on the surface. The process is associated with abstract art, but this work, Frankenthaler explained, developed “into shapes symbolic of an exuberant figure and ladder, therefore Jacob’s Ladder,” a name derived from the Bible tale of Jacob’s dream of a ladder between heaven and earth.
Gallery label from "Collection 1940s—1970s", 2019
To make this painting, Helen Frankenthaler put a giant piece of canvas on the floor and poured thin oil paint over it, letting it soak in. “The picture developed (bit by bit while I was working on it) into shapes,” she said. What do the shapes make you think of?
Gallery label from 2019, for kids
Although it shares a name with the biblical tale of Jacob's dreamed ascent toward heaven, this work, Frankenthaler insisted, 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." Inspired by Jackson Pollock in her "experiments with line not as line but as shape," Frankenthaler took his iconic drip technique a step further, thinning her pigments so that they would soak into the unprimed canvas she had laid on the floor. Her technique was instrumental to the development of 1960s Color Field painting.
Gallery label from Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, April 19 - August 13, 2017
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
As Frankenthaler worked on this painting, its forms came to suggest a ladderlike structure topped by what she called an “exuberant figure,” reminding her of the biblical narrative referred to in the work’s title. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob, while fleeing his murderous brother Esau, has a dream in which he envisions a ladder connecting the earth to heaven; God appears and issues a blessing and a pledge of devotion to Jacob and his descendants.
Frankenthaler evoked the symbolic features of the story through a combination of techniques that she had begun to employ in the 1950s. The image of a ladder emerged from a rectangular segment that Frankenthaler reinforced with relatively controlled, parallel brushstrokes, much the same way that the rungs of a ladder are constructed in real life. The “exuberant” aspects of the painting were applied more loosely, unbounded by contours. Frankenthaler used an unmediated process in these areas, allowing thinned oil paint to seep directly into unprimed canvas and yield chance effects produced by the pigment itself. Over the course of the next decade, Frankenthaler’s works would come to be marked by these sublime expanses of stained color, her signature contribution to the history of abstract painting.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)