Against the grain : Helen Frankenthaler woodcuts
There are no rules, that is one thing I say about every medium, every picture ... that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about. Helen Frankenthaler1
'Essence mulberry' 1977 colour woodcut printed from four woodblocks, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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In 1950, at the age of 22, Helen Frankenthaler met the art critic Clement Greenberg and began mixing with the New York School of artists. Two things immediately set her apart from her contemporaries – her gender and her age. Frankenthaler was one of a handful of female artists who successfully contributed to the artistic territory dominated by such giants as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Much younger than these artists, Frankenthaler emerged as one of the first in what has come to be known as the ‘second generation’ of Abstract Expressionist painters. Frankenthaler accompanied Greenberg to many exhibition openings, visited the studios of other artists and frequented the (now legendary) Cedar Street Bar and the Artists’ Club. She was adept at analysing, discussing and deconstructing the robust action painting produced around her and actively participated in the artistic dialogue of the 1950s. Yet she knew that she was alone in her quest to develop an individual style. Frankenthaler began her search for a departure point; a method of mark making that was uniquely hers. She found it in 1952 with a large-scale oil painting entitled Mountains and sea.
Mountains and sea was created after Frankenthaler returned to her New York studio from a trip to Nova Scotia, where she had painted numerous watercolours of the rocky seascape. She spread her canvas on the floor, a technique adopted from Jackson Pollock, but it was what she did next that made that crucial, radical departure from his work. Frankenthaler, in the habit of working quickly and using watercolour washes, applied paint diluted with turpentine directly onto the unprimed canvas. The artist has recalled that she felt ‘the landscapes were in my arms as I did it’.2 Working instinctively, she allowed the diluted mix to soak into the canvas and using subtle washes she filled it with large, lyrical gestures – a style that has since become her signature. The technique, described by the artist as ‘soak-stain’, was a fusion of image and ground that resulted in the ultimate flat surface. This experimental method was a radical digression from what had come before and was the breakthrough that propelled Helen Frankenthaler into the spotlight of the New York art scene.
Frankenthaler was well-equipped for this sudden attention. Born in New York in 1928, the youngest of three daughters to wealthy Jewish parents, she was educated at the prestigious Dalton School, New York, and Bennington College, Vermont. She studied at Dalton under the Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo and at Bennington under the American Cubist Paul Feeley. It was Feeley who directed Frankenthaler in the development of her early Cubist-derived style and, more importantly, gave her an understanding of pictorial composition and space. Feeley taught Frankenthaler to stand in front of a work of art and dissect it: ‘We would really sift through every inch of what it was that worked; or if it didn’t, why. And cover up either half of it or a millimetre of it and wonder what was effective in it … in terms of paint, the subject matter, the size, the drawing.’3 Early encouragement to become involved in the arts, in combination with Frankenthaler’s meticulous training, led to the development of her unwavering determination to become an artist.
Determination is an essential characteristic of the artist whose work evolves from experimentation. It is Frankenthaler’s intrinsic sense of exactly what is required to balance line, form and colour within a given pictorial space that permits her to unleash a spontaneous, yet controlled gesture: ‘you have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once.’4 Frankenthaler recognised early in her career that to grow as an artist and to develop aesthetically it was crucial that she continually challenge herself and work outside of her comfort zone. Painting was Frankenthaler’s primary artistic passion, but an obsession to push her creative limits led her to turn her attention to print media. What better way to grow through experimentation than to switch the medium used to convey the artistic message?
one of 46 woodblocks used in the printing of 'Madame Butterfly' 2000 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002
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Frankenthaler created her first prints in 1961 with Tatyana Grosman at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in West Islip, Long Island. It was in this intimate lithographic workshop, where artists were treated as personal guests and for whom Grosman would go to any lengths to facilitate artistic needs, that Frankenthaler began to experiment with print media. There was a long period of print education and technical trial and error for Frankenthaler: ‘Whether it be graphics, sculpture, tapestry, ceramics – whatever the medium – there is the difficulty, challenge, fascination and often productive clumsiness of learning a new method: the wonderful puzzles and problems of translating with new materials… [a] translation of my image in a new vocabulary’.5 While Frankenthaler also created her first woodcuts at ULAE it was not until 1976, when she commenced collaboration with master printer Kenneth Tyler, that she began a sustained investigation of the woodcut medium.
In a new workshop and with some printmaking experience behind her Frankenthaler was ready, once again, to push her creative limits. Kenneth Tyler was exactly the master printer she required to transpose her bold gestural experiments into the realm of the technological. Frankenthaler’s first woodcut with Tyler was Essence mulberry, produced in 1977. The inception of this stunning, eight-colour woodcut was inspired by two factors. The first was an exhibition of 15th-century woodcuts that Frankenthaler had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art6, where she was particularly struck by the colour of the prints and determined to discover all she could about the ancient medium. The second was when the artist, working with Tyler at his Bedford workshop, noticed a mulberry tree growing outside the studio. She commented upon the vibrant colour of the berries and Tyler squashed some of them into juice. Frankenthaler dipped a paintbrush into the juice and proceeded to paint on a piece of Japanese calligraphic paper. The resulting mulberry colour against the delicate paper was the starting point for the development of the print.
With Essence mulberry both artist and master printer recognised the start of an extraordinary collaboration. Frankenthaler has confessed that even today she will look at Essence mulberry and say to Ken, ‘How did we do it? How did we get it?’, believing that, ‘It is one thing for the artist to have a certain magic and produce a certain magic but for the technicians and the press and Ken to get it’ was something truly special. She admits that she ‘wanted things that I couldn’t at times articulate … but between our exchange we got this music.’7 Essence mulberry is seen today as a watershed, the first of Frankenthaler’s woodcuts to employ the traditionally graphic medium in the production of an image of abstracted and inspired beauty.
The woodcut, a notoriously difficult and rigid medium, could not be further from the artistic realm of a gestural, spontaneous painter. As a painter, Frankenthaler’s creative process is driven by the development of a dialogue with the work itself, ‘a fighting, loving dialogue with this piece of material. You force something on it and it gives you an answer back … until you know that this is right.’8 To a certain extent, the work directs her and it evolves out of itself. Therefore, when creating a woodcut, a medium which requires careful planning and numerous technical adjustments, either the style of the artist or the rules governing the medium must shift. Frankenthaler saw the woodcut as a challenge and has been determined not only to learn its language, but to master it.
In the thirty years that have passed since the creation of Essence mulberry Frankenthaler has worked with Tyler Graphics in a collaboration that has dramatically shifted the parameters of the woodcut. Frankenthaler’s experimental nature drove her to use paper pulp as a support for her woodcut Freefall, 1993and hand-dyed paper for Radius, 1993. The artist experimented with the combination of woodcut and other print techniques such as lithography in All about blue, 1994 and etching and aquatint in Ariel, 1996. By casting the rules aside, Frankenthaler has succeeded in coercing the woodcut into yielding printed works bearing the hallmarks of her unique lyrical style. The woodcut is no longer solely the medium of the graphic artist working alone in the studio; it is now also a medium to explore the abstract, a medium of collaboration, the medium of an entire print workshop working in sync with an artist.
Kenneth Tyler has recalled that with the Tales of Genji, a series of six woodcut prints that Frankenthaler began in 1995, ‘It was apparent from the beginning that what was needed was a new approach and technique for making what Helen strove for: a woodcut with painterly resonance.’9 With this in mind, Tyler suggested to Frankenthaler that she could communicate to the workshop of printers and more importantly, remain true to her unique style by painting her ideas for the printed works onto pieces of wood.
Supplied with wood, paint and brushes, Frankenthaler worked alone in the artist’s studio at Tyler Graphics painting the maquettes for the Tales of Genji. From the painted studies, tracings were made and woodblocks were carved by the ukiyo-e trained Japanese carver, Yasuyuki Shibata. The watery nature of Frankenthaler’s paintings created an immediate problem for printing. In order to create the lush transparent washes of colour, the printers had to work quickly with wet sheets of paper that, under the pressure of the printing press, would force the inks to bleed and blend into one another. Through trial and error and laborious proofing sessions, the workshop gradually overcame these technical difficulties.
With the Tales of Genji series Frankenthaler had placed not only herself but the entire workshop outside of their comfort zone. Tyler recalls that, ‘None of us knew what we were doing … and half the time we didn’t know what we were saying. The technique had absolutely no history. We were making it up as we went along.’10 Despite this leap into the creative unknown, the six resulting images are truly seductive prints. It is with awe that one looks at the woodcuts and realises that the entire project took the artist and the workshop a mammoth three years to complete. It is the Tales of Genji woodcuts that form the pinnacle in experimental print collaboration between Frankenthaler and Tyler Graphics and the series that forced the development of new printing techniques that were perfected two years later in Frankenthaler’s final woodcut with Tyler Graphics, the triptych Madame Butterfly.
Frankenthaler has stated that: A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image…one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.11
'Madame Butterfly' 2000 colour woodcut, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Purchased with the assistance of the Orde Poynton Fund 2002
click to enlarge
In Madame Butterfly, we see Frankenthaler’s impulsive soak-stain painting technique realised in the most graphic of print media. The ‘spontaneous print’ that Frankenthaler has pursued throughout her print career has finally been achieved. Not only has she managed to push beyond everything that she had previously created in the woodcut medium, but technically, the work has moved into territory that shows the Tyler Graphics workshop at its finest. Madame Butterfly is a virtuoso display of 102 colours, printed from forty-six woodblocks, in a work spanning three panels of paper and measuring over two metres in length.
Once again, the artist communicated her ideas to the technicians of the print workshop bypainting on three pieces of specially selected wood. Paper was skilfully handmade by Tyler Graphics to resemble both the texture and look of the wood grain. The woodblocks used to print the image were carved by Frankenthaler and Yasuyuki Shibata. Frankenthaler marked the wood using her ‘guzzying’ technique, a technique involving scratching the wood with items including sandpaper and dental tools. Frankenthaler was determined to ensure that her wrist, and thus her unique sensibility, be evident in every aspect of the print’s creation, just as it is in her paintings.
The resulting workis one of exceptional beauty. With Madame Butterfly Frankenthaler has triumphed in her attempt to encapsulate a ‘born in a minute’ feeling with a print so painterly in its delicate washes of colour and transient floating forms, that it resembles a watercolour. Frankenthaler has pushed herself, her techniques and the boundaries of print collaboration to bring her unique style to bear upon the woodcut. Madame Butterfly is a work that stands as the jewel in Frankenthaler’s crown, and a woodcut print that truly transforms the possibilities of the medium.
Against the grain: the woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler reveals the experimental nature of an artist who, by deliberately casting the rules aside, has maintained her innovative edge for over five decades. Frankenthaler was influential to many as a young painter and remains influential today, well into her seventies, not only as an artist in general, but as a superb woodcut artist in particular. It is not easy to go against the grain but Frankenthaler has always followed her instinct and as a result, is one of few artists today who have imbued the oldest of printmaking techniques with a contemporary vitality. In the printed editioned works, trial proofs and carved woodblocks currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia, it is clear to see that in the woodcut medium Helen Frankenthaler has become the ‘departure point’.
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