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Helen Frankenthaler: An artist lost in the moment

The beauty of Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, inspired many works by one of the most renowned American artists of the 20th century: Helen Frankenthaler. But though you may notice shimmering ocean blues and tawny shades of sand in her work, don't expect to find recognizable landscapes. 

It was the feeling of a place that she was trying to evoke in abstract expressionist style. 

The exhibition "Abstract Climates: Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown," at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y. CBS News

Take this painting, called "Beach" (below). "It's painted with paint, and plaster of Paris, and coffee grounds and sand, and so it evokes our sitting on the deck with her drinking her cup of coffee and walking on the beach with the sand crunching under your feet," said Lise Motherwell, Frankenthaler's step-daughter from her 1958 marriage to another famed artist, Robert Motherwell. "It captures the whole experience of a day with Helen."

"Beach" (1962) by Helen Frankenthaler, with detail. Oil, plaster, sand and coffee grounds on canvas. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Though the couple would ultimately divorce, Lise stayed close to Frankenthaler over the years. She said Frankenthaler was exuberant about life as well as art: "Helen was incredibly playful. 'Everything is an adventure: Let's try it!'  And that was really exciting to be around."

And now, a series of works that Frankenthaler created in Provincetown is on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, on Long Island. The exhibit is called "Abstract Climates," because, co-curator Elizabeth Smith said, that's how Frankenthaler described what she was trying to create in paintings such as "Cool Summer."

"Cool Summer" (1962) by Helen Frankenthaler. Oil on canvas.  © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

"It's almost a little bit psychedelic-looking," said correspondent Rita Braver.

"Yeah, the palette is so bright – the blues, the greens, the pinks, the reds, the yellow. And we can almost in this painting get the sensation of a cool breeze on a summer day," Smith said.

Born in 1928 into a wealthy New York Jewish family, Frankenthaler started painting in high school, and studied art at Bennington College.

In 1951 she had her first solo exhibition, at the age of 23. "She also that same year was included in the 9th Street Show. And that was the first time that a large number of artists, who would later become known as the abstract expressionists of the New York school, were exhibited all together," Smith said.

Artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). An exhibition of seaside-inspired works by the abstract expressionist painter evokes the magic of landscapes and the textures of a temporal experience. Courtesy Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Archives, New York

Frankenthaler struck up a romance with Clement Greenberg, considered the leading art critic of his time. He introduced her to one of the most audacious artists of the moment: Jackson Pollock. As Frankenthaler explained in a 1978 documentary, Pollock's technique of pouring paint onto canvasses on the floor changed everything for her:  "You sit up when you paint a picture and it is facing you closely – No! You're waltzing around it, and it's on the floor," she said.

But while Pollock splattered the paint, layering it onto the canvas in a three-dimensional way, Frankenthaler developed a flatter style of painting that she called soak stain.

"She took oil paint and thinned it down with turpentine [or] kerosene, to almost watery consistency," Smith said, "and she let it spill and pour along the surface of the painting."

This seems to be a Frankenthaler moment. There are also major exhibits of her work in Venice, Italy, and at the Princeton University Art Museum in New Jersey

It's a far cry from 1952, when she first showed a piece called "Mountains and Sea." Today it's considered a masterpiece. But back then, said Smith, "I don't think people really, you know, immediately understood what she was doing. And in fact, when she showed the painting at her gallery, it didn't sell. And I think it was on sale for $100 or something like that. So, it went back to live with Helen in her studio."

"Mountains and Sea" (1952) by Helen Frankenthaler. Oil and charcoal on canvas.  National Gallery of Art, Washington. © 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

It now hangs in the National Gallery of Art.

And long before her death, in 2011, Helen Frankenthaler would see the prices of her paintings soar and her work celebrated.  But as she told "Sunday Morning" in 1984, she could never explain how she made the magic.

"People say to me, 'How do you feel in the middle of making a picture?'" she said. "I can't answer. I think something takes over. You're lost in it."

From 1984: Abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler 08:20

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Story produced by Julie Kracov. 

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