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)