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Two Moons

On view

Two Moons

Artist: Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928 - 2011)

Date: 1961
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 32 1/4 x 52in. (81.9 x 132.1cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Frankenthaler'
Markings: Verso, stamped: '541 / 415'
Inscribed: Verso: 'Two Moons 1961'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 83.24
Text Entries

One of Helen Frankenthaler’s primary, revitalizing sources is nature, but her paintings do not depict specific scenes. Her abstract projections can be related to sensations she has found there. To her, nature is a catalyst for spontaneous feeling. Two Moons was painted during the year F rankenthaler established her first summer studio at Provincetown, Massachusetts. This painting comes nine years after the well-known Mountains and Sea of 1952 (collection of the artist). In the mid-1960s, when Frankenthaler returned to a more restrained rectilinear composition, she reflected on this seminal work and stated, “I know the landscapes were in my arms as I did it.”(1) Alluding to the interrelationship of sky, sea, and land, Two Moons may be seen as a return to the airy ambience of Mountains and Sea.

Although Mountains and Sea was created after a summer of painting and sketching landscapes in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, this early abstraction was primarily a work that attacked a formal problem: how to build upon the work of such Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s as Gorky, Hofmann, de Kooning, and Pollock. In order to extend the achievements of these artists, particularly the fluid, biomorphic line and translucent color of Gorky and the radical gestural technique of Pollock, Frankenthaler tried a new method of applying paint in works such as Mountains and Sea. She thinned her oil pigments with turpentine in order to spread the color and to make it soak into the weave of the unprimed canvas. With poured lines and watery stains pulled together into a faintly drawn Cubist structure on the bare ground of the canvas, she created a new sensation of light and space.(2)

Before the use of her staining technique the nuances of pictorial space had generally progressed in three steps: the scumbling and drybrush techniques of standard, Western easel painting; the Cubist light-and-dark value structuring of interrelated planes, which, for example, de Kooning used in a heavily laden manner; or Pollock’s pulverization of three-dimensional form through a web of thick, colored lines poured, dripped, and manipulated all over his canvas. Pollock’s lines of color built up a luminous, optical space, but also a hard reality on the surface of the canvas. Frankenthaler was aware of Pollock’s own use of the staining technique, as in his No. 2, 1949 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art), but she allowed her spilled lines of color to flow and enclose more area.(3) Diluted lines of color and lines becoming planar shapes pulsate at the surface, but do not separate themselves from the ground. Her technique simultaneously emphasizes the literal and illusory space of the flat canvas.

Throughout the 1950s Frankenthaler chose to adhere to the Abstract Expressionists’ image, while avoiding their use of myth and their use of the canvas as a personal arena. Although reducing facture, she aggressively layered colors and denied the stained pools their purity through thick drawing and splattered paint. Only in 1957 did she begin to restore the more open quality of Mountains and Sea. The Utica painting shares its subtle, open landscape-type arrangement.

Yet with its spare imagery organized around two arcs, Two Moons exemplifies a dramatic change to a centered format and a greater attention to large areas of exposed canvas. In this painting Frankenthaler seems to set up a dialogue with the more orderly approach to composition and economy of means characteristic of art of the 1960s. While her reduction of visual incidents around a geometric core might reveal the influence of Kenneth Noland’s early “Target” series, and her focus on a centrally expansive, gravity-defying image might parallel Morris Louis’s “Floral” series, she reasserts her handmade marks and her interiorization of the forces of nature. In Two Moons Frankenthaler indicates her future interest in joining a minimum number of shapes to construct a dynamic space without de-emphasizing free luminous areas of saturated, yet subtle, colors.(4)


1. Henry Geldzahler, “An Interview with Helen Frankenthaler,” Artforum, vol. 4, no. 2 (October 1965), p. 36. Frankenthaler’s feelings about art and nature must have been reinforced by her study with Hans Hofmann in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during the summer of 1950. He believed that there were universal laws governing art and nature, and that each student, after directly observing nature, should translate his sensations in accordance with the two-dimensional character of the canvas.

2. Irving Sandler has stated that James Brooks adapted Pollock’s staining method around 1949. He has also stated that Frankenthaler’s earliest stained canvases were preceded by a group of watercolors executed on Cape Cod during the summer of 1956. The New Tork School (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), pp. 67, 88, n. 3. In her study of modern art, Frankenthaler looked to the Abstract Expressionists, as well as to Kandinsky, Dove, and Marin. Eugene Goossen sees a relationship between Frankenthaler’s early works and John Marin’s vignetted compositions. In Frankenthaler’s Two Moons there are clusters of shapes, as well as a residual “framed” space on the right. Helen Frankenthaler, exhibition catalog (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967), p. 9.

3. Frankenthaler first saw Pollock’s work at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the fall of 1950. She was in the Ninth Street Show with him and other Abstract Expressionists in 1951. While Pollock’s Number 2, 1949 (Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art) was purchased from an earlier exhibition and would not have been known to her, there are numerous instances throughout the canvas where the oil in the enamel paints bled into the fabric support and created darker stained areas. Pollock’s technique of allowing thinned-down pigment to soak into the canvas was most prominent in his black Duco enamel paintings of 1951—52.

4. In 1959 and 1960 Morris Louis exhibited his “Veils” and “Florals“ at French and Co. in New York where Clement Greenberg worked. In 1959 Kenneth Noland exhibited his “Target” series at the same gallery for the first time. One of the paintings in the exhibition was Lunar Episode (Charles Gilman, Jr., New York). Greenberg, a long-time admirer of Frankenthaler’s paintings, wrote his first major article on these two artists in the spring of 1960. The new simplification in Frankenthaler’s Two Moons can be seen in other works of 1961: Three Moons (Arthur Stern, Rochester, New York), Swan Lake No. 2 (Anthony Caro, Frognal, London), Vessel (collection of the artist), Blue Caterpillar (private collection), Yellow Caterpillar (Henry Geldzahler, New York), May Scene (collection of the artist), and Arden (Whitney Museum of American Art). In 1960 Frankenthaler began to experiment with primed canvas to harden the edges of her shapes. In 1962 she began using the brighter, non-fading, flatter acrylic paints that Louis and Noland used. The Utica painting is not tied to either of these two technical developments. For a discussion of these issues, see Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1971), pp. 90-92 and 100.


© Helen Frankenthaler Foundation / Licensing by Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY