TO STAIN SOMETHING NORMALLY IMPLIES "blemishing" or "soiling" that thing. Wine, coffee, catsup or Bolognaise are all good things in themselves until they're on the couch, the carpet or a crisp white shirt. With stains generally carrying a negative connotation, it's noteworthy seeing them inspire a painting technique, for creating beautiful art nonetheless.
Helen Frankenthaler's invention of the "soak stain" can be said to have brewed since her childhood. Young Helen would dribble nail polish into a sink filled with water "to watch the color flow." As an artist in the 60s, she thinned paint out with turpentine, pouring the heavily diluted pigment onto a canvas on the floor. The resulting stains married paint and canvas, in light, luminous washes resembling watercolor.
Inspired by Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaller painted from all sides of the canvas and applied paint with unconventional tools, in unconventional ways. She ultimately created her own language in a more abstract form of Color Field, which deviated from Abstract Expressionism by eliminating both the emotional content of the movement and the personal or gestural application associated with it. "What I took from that was the gesture and the attitude and the floor working, but I wanted to work with shapes in a very different way. And instead of being involved in his technique, what evolved for me out of my needs and invention had to do with pouring paint, and staining paint."
Frankenthaler's paintings received much criticism, being dubbed "pretty wallpaper" or reminiscent of menstruation. They fundamentally offered an entirely new look and feel to the surface of the canvas, and beauty at a time of otherwise aggressive abstractions. "What concerns me when I work, is not whether the picture is a landscape, or whether it's pastoral, or whether somebody will see a sunset in it. What concerns me is - did I make a beautiful picture?"
Cloud Burst, Nature Abhors a Vacuum, Tales of Genji I and Sphinx by Helen Frankenthaler. Helen Frankenthaler by André Emmerich © Estate of André Emmerich. www.frankenthalerfoundation.org