Frank Stella in the studio at Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1993
Gift of Kenneth Tyler 2002
Photographer: James McHUGH

The collaboration of nearly 35 years between the foremost American abstract artist Frank Stella (born 1936) and Ken Tyler was once dubbed as 'part brinkmanship, engineering, and sometimes theater'. By the early 1980s, Stella's work with Tyler had taken printmaking into new realms of rich imagination and experimentation; and Stella had become an artist who was as important for his printmaking as he was for his painting.

In the early days of Gemini GEL, Stella was one of the artists Tyler cajoled into making prints at the workshop. The artist initially rejected Tyler's approaches as he considered prints were merely reproductions. But then in 1967 Stella succumbed and began making prints at the workshop.

In 1970 he developed a version of his Protractor paintings which he enclosed in a square, such as Untitled. Painted in brilliant pigments in polymer and fluorescent paints, the more symmetrical compositions and formal, organic shapes evoke the geometry and richness of Islamic pattern—something Stella was interested in at that time. In the following year the composition was reworked into prints in a less symmetrical format, with interlocking bold arcs and squares and vivid colouring—River of Ponds I–IV.

Until the early 1980s, Stella's painting continued to inform his printmaking. Then the reverse occurred when he discovered a wonderful web of tracery of random lines on the plywood that had been backing the honeycomb aluminium used for his Circuit Relief Paintings. He printed from this board and the discovery transformed Stella's art. He began making prints from inked reliefs collaged from studio remnants. He adopted this process for the series Circuits of 1982–84, notable for their rich textures, flamboyant lines and suggestions of three–dimensionality—such as the Imola prints (named after the motor race course in Italy) and the Pergusa prints (after the Sicilian track), which hark back to Abstract Expressionism, particularly the art of Jackson Pollock.

Between 1985 and 1993, Frank Stella produced a large group of works which take their titles from the chapters of that great 19th–century literary classic, Herman Melville's Moby–Dick; or, The Whale. They appear in series including Moby Dick Domes of 1992 and Moby Dick Deckle Edges of the following year. Stella also produced single prints with titles drawn from Melville's epic, one being The Fountain of 1992.

In response to Stella's need for larger paper sizes, the workshop developed its mill to be able to produce handmade paper as big as 168 x 132 cm. Adding dyes to paper pulp—a technique that David Hockney and Helen Frankenthaler also used—was another innovation introduced to the artist by the Tyler studio.

As well as large–scale papermaking later in the 1980s, Stella and Tyler explored the notion of the third dimension when they developed dome–shaped prints. The sculptural print evolved as the nexus between Stella's sculptural works and his prints grew. After years of research to work out ways of making shaped paper, Tyler developed a vacuum method to produce the required sculptural form.

While sculptural prints were one avenue for exploration for Stella, mural prints were another. The Fountain takes its title from chapter 85 of Moby–Dick, which describes in detail the majesty of the sperm whale. This mural print is the most significant of all the Moby Dick series—Stella worked on a collage, for the most part made from fragments of printed proofs 'using reject prints and partially printed proofs'. The fragments, predominantly from Moby Dick prints, were collaged using a method of 'cutting up and stapling down'. Some fragments from past imagery were enlarged, some cut into new forms and some shapes reworked.

In Stella's series Imaginary Places of 1994–97, he continued to recycle and reinterpret his imagery while exploring new ways of composing — with the search as important as the result. The series combines many processes—lithography, screenprinting, etching, engraving, aquatint, relief, woodcut — printed on beautiful handmade, dyed papers, sometimes in rectangular formats and sometimes in circular ones. For this series, Stella took the titles for the individual prints from The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi (New York: Macmillan, c 1980).

Stella is an artist capable of working on many compositions at once, and he created a large body of work for the Imaginary Places series, committed to the search for perfection. Juam of 1997 is one of two from the series (the other being Juam, State 1) that refer to another of Melville's novels, Mardi, originally published in 1849. Juam is a mythical island with rivulets, greenery and singing birds, and a magical palace, the House of Morning, which took 500 moons to complete.

Juam continues the exploration of the third dimension in printmaking, with a rich sculptural quality derived from the method of its making. The printing elements consist of a carved plywood base with 102 irregularly shaped elements—one honeycomb aluminium; 39 copper and 12 magnesium plates; one bronze, 11 poured aluminium and 16 brass elements; and 22 aluminium rings. This collage of poured metal, of wonderfully irregular shapes and forms, was then inked with 144 colours, taking printmaking to yet another high point of excellence.

This one work summarises so many of the Tyler workshops' great innovations—the use of handmade dyed papers, multiple techniques, and working on a large scale—a world away from the simply reproductive prints Frank Stella first made with Ken Tyler in 1967.

Jane Kinsman

Further information will be added to this site as the National Gallery proceeds with its research and documentation.

Last updated November 2014