A year after its controversial sale of a big and beloved Helen Frankenthaler painting, Palm Springs Art Museum has opened an exhibition examining the artist’s final crescendo.

Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, was part of the second generation of abstract expressionist painters and known for her bold experimentation — the rare woman who not only ran with the “big boys” of the midcentury movement but also charted her own path. She famously introduced a soak-stain technique, pouring diluted oil paint onto untreated canvases and using brushes, sponges, and other tools to achieve a watercolor effect. She was influential in AbEx’s shift toward “color field” painting, and turned to acrylics for brighter, thicker gestural brushstrokes that sometimes referenced figures and landscapes. Later, as we see in the museum’s presentation of Helen Frankenthaler: Late Works, 1990-2003, the artist began working on large sheets of paper that she spread onto her studio floor, soaking them with her signature wash and adding spontaneous marks in charcoal, crayon, pastel, pen, and ink.


Helen Frankenthaler, Contentment Island, 2002, Acrylic on paper 74 1/8 inches x 60 1/8 inches. Collection: Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Curated by Douglas Dreishpoon, director of the Helen Frankenthaler Catalogue Raisonné and chief curator emeritus at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the exhibition includes 20 paintings on paper and 10 paintings on canvas, all on loan from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.

The show, which continues through Feb. 27, 2022, opened in Palm Springs a year after the museum sold Carousel, one of its two large-scale Frankenthaler paintings, at auction for $3.9 million. It was one of 132 works of art donated by the late interior designer Steve Chase. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, museums could ethically “deaccession” art to loosen funds for new acquisitions and fine-tune their collections.

However, during the crisis, the Association of Art Museum Directors temporarily relaxed the guideline, allowing institutions to spend those funds on direct costs of the care of their collections. Proceeds from the Frankenthaler sale support the maintenance, conservation, and storage of the museum’s 12,000-object collection and seed an acquisition fund in Chase’s name.

Meanwhile, April Screen, the museum’s more important — historically speaking — Frankenthaler painting, continues to hang on the third floor among thematically organized selections from the permanent collection. The 1972 painting is not part of the Late Works exhibition.


Helen Frankenthaler, Solar Imp, 1995, Acrylic on paper 78 inches x 59 3/4 inches. Collection: Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, New York 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Instead, you’ll find paintings like the bright yellow and orange Solar Imp (1995), an abstraction containing the union of red and green rectangles, a reference to Frankenthaler’s second marriage, and the moody Contentment Island (2002), named for the artist’s Connecticut home and studio. Other standouts include Aerie (1995), Southern Exposure (2002), and Lighthouse Series V (1998).

The paintings reflect the sum of the artist’s six decades of ideas and techniques, a remarkable continuity that makes the show feel familiar even when each visual journey leads to a new and imaginative place.