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?
Kids label from 2019
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)
Frankenthaler’s works are large in scale and often feature expansive areas of paint. The artist developed a painting technique in which she thinned pigments with turpentine so that they soaked through and stained the unprimed canvas instead of resting on the surface. The images and colors then become embedded in the fabric of the canvas, making the paintings resemble giant watercolors.
While she rarely discussed whether her abstract compositions had figurative sources, Frankenthaler often mentioned an interest in landscape. She said the paintings she had made when she was out in the country were “filled with ideas about landscape, space, arrangement, perspective, repetition, flatness, light, all of which was translated and carried on in my own work and experiments.” In 1957, Frankenthaler said, “If I am forced to associate, I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds, and distances held on a flat surface.”
The title of this work refers to the biblical character Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah. As described in the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream in which he saw a ladder reaching toward heaven. Speaking about this work, Frankenthaler said, “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.”