Helen Frankenthaler was born on 12 December 1928 in New York City. She studied briefly with the Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo before enrolling at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1946. In 1950 she met the critic Clement Greenberg, who introduced her to many artists of the New York School, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. In the same year Adolph Gottlieb selected her work for inclusion in the exhibition Fifteen unknowns at the Kootz Gallery, New York. She held her first solo exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, in 1951.

Following a trip to Nova Scotia in Canada in 1952, during which she made many watercolour sketches, Frankenthaler began to apply thinned paint directly onto unprimed canvas, exploiting colour in open, lyrical compositions. In 1959 the artist began exhibiting with André Emmerich Gallery, New York, where she continued to hold regular solo exhibitions. Her first retrospective was held at the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1960.

During the 1960s Frankenthaler began to use synthetic polymer paints, adopting more structured and formal compositions in her works. She was one of three artists chosen to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1966 and, in the same year, participated in the exhibition Two decades of American painting, organised by the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, and which toured Japan, India and Australia. A retrospective exhibition of her work was mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1969 and later shown in London, Hanover and Berlin. Other important museum retrospectives have been organised by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1975, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1985, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1989, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1993. She worked in New York and Stamford, Connecticut, until her death in Darien, Connecticut, on 27 December 2011.