Helen Frankenthaler. Jacob's Ladder. 1957

Helen Frankenthaler Jacob's Ladder 1957

The Museum of Modern Art, Floor 5, Collection Galleries

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.

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.

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.
Medium
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
9' 5 3/8" x 69 7/8" (287.9 x 177.5 cm)
Credit
Gift of Hyman N. Glickstein
Object number
82.1960
Copyright
© 2018 Helen Frankenthaler / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Department
Painting and Sculpture

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