Mountains and Sea

By Kaitlyn Zaldana


Based on “Mountains and Sea” by Helen Frankenthaler


Humanity’s most encapsulating muse since creation has been the earth. Imagine the roaring sea dormant, or a mountain transparent. Think of nature’s greatest forces captured in absolute flatness, yet they appear to float before the eyes.


Helen Frankenthaler refused to conform to her societally assigned position as a subservient woman. She pushed herself to become a woman of progression, independent of gender constructs threatening to silence her artistic voice. Her artwork was widely criticized and deemed as feminine- as if paintings of nature embodying soft features carries the connotation of being undesired. However, she isn’t ashamed of her womanhood, she honed in on her femininity and channeled it into her work with pride.


Frankenthaler’s creation, “Mountains and Sea” captured the essence and feeling of these bodies without being completely representative- meaning she didn’t have to outline specific mountain ranges or ridges on waves for her audience to understand she was depicting a scene of nature. Her craftsmanship focused on transcribing the gestures of the landscape as opposed to an explicit structure. This left room for the mind to fill in the gaps about the scene and play with ideas of what the more abstract areas of the painting could be depicting.


I think of all the times I’ve ventured to the oceans and how standing at the shore staring into the horizon, I felt intimidated by the vastness of the sea and how it seemed to be endless. I think of when I stood at the base of a mountain in the deep mid-winter in awe of how unbelievably small humanity is in comparison to a great formation thousands of feet above our heads. In contrast to those emotions, “Mountains and Sea” does not make me feel insignificant. I feel welcomed by the pastel colors and the loose shapes bring out a child-like curiosity as my eyes follow the lines to form various silhouettes. 


I think Frankenthaler wanted to challenge people to see dominant and all-powerful creations from a different perspective. Perhaps she wanted to prove these things can have delicate qualities but that does not mean they are weak. No matter how breathtaking the mountains may be, no matter how the waves may glisten, both can still wreak havoc and should be respected as so. I have to wonder if this is a metaphor for her viewpoint on women in society. Just because there is a soft, beautiful exterior, doesn’t mean that women are incapable of matching brazen masculine accomplishments. 


Art in the twentieth century was decidedly a man’s world in which women occupied a marginal status at best. Female artists were far and few between, and virtually invisible when compared to their male counterparts because their work wasn’t revered as cutting edge. In response to negative lash back about her work, Frankenthaler commented, “I don’t resent being a female artist, and I don’t exploit it. I paint.” Instead of being bullied out of her passion, she stood proudly by her creation and let her own unique voice be heard.


Frankenthaler unknowingly became the link in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting when she created the soak-stain technique. The unstoppable colorist poured thinned paint onto raw, unprimed canvas. After a few moments of patience, the materials soaked into the support, sealing the amorphous shapes in effervescent perpetual motion. “Mountains and Sea” was her first time experimenting with the soak-stain technique.


As time progressed, the tide turned and she became the influencer of male artists and the future of Color Field painting because of her soak-stain technique, which was a major turning point for both women and the art community. She then started collecting admiration from critics and her work is currently part of a long-overdue exhibition titled “Women of Abstract Expressionism” and will inspire female artists to push the limits of creation and what they know to be possible.


Oddly enough, there is beauty in power, especially in an unmatched force such as mother nature. It’s imperative to embrace the duality of the world, in that it is both commanding and graceful. “Mountains and Sea” is proof that there is always a balance in power and we can and should find peace in that.


Tags: Analysis