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The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting

Discover the innovative tecniques of Abstract Expressionist painters

Jacob's Ladder

Helen Frankenthaler
(American, 1928–2011)

1957. Oil on canvas, 9' 5 3/8" x 69 7/8" (287.9 x 177.5 cm)

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.”1 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.”2

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.”3

Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Helen Frankenthaler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 120.
Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Helen Frankenthaler (New York: Happy N. Abrams, 1989), 99.
Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in MoMA Highlights, 219.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A closely woven, sturdy cloth of hemp, cotton, linen, or a similar fiber, frequently stretched over a frame and used as a surface for painting.

A combination of pigment, binder, and solvent (noun); the act of producing a picture using paint (verb, gerund).

A substance, usually finely powdered, that produces the color of any medium. When mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, it becomes paint.

The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.

Representing a form or figure in art that retains clear ties to the real world.


AUDIO: Curator Emeritus John Elderfield discusses Helen Frankenthaler’s process