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The fountain: a print epic
Frank Stella and Ken Tyler

Frank Stella artist, Ken Tyler printer, The Fountain 1992

Frank Stella artist, Ken Tyler printer 'The fountain' 1992 National Gallery of Australia.
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The fountain 1992 is a 67–colour, hand–coloured woodcut, etching, aquatint, relief, drypoint, screenprint, on three sheets of natural kozo fibre handmade paper with seven screenprinted natural gampi fibre handmade paper collage elements, spanning over 2.3 metres in height by 7 metres in length. Derived from an original collage and printed from three carved woodblocks and 105 intaglio plates, it marked the culmination of many years of collaboration between the foremost American abstract artist, Frank Stella (United States, born 1936) and the Master Printer Ken Tyler (United States, born 1931)— a collaboration dubbed as ‘part brinkmanship, engineering, and sometimes theater’.1

Frank Stella had made a name for himself early in his career. In 1959, at the age of 24 he came to the attention of the New York art world when four paintings from his Black paintings series of 1958–60 were selected for the important Sixteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. In the same year the Director of MoMA, Alfred Barr, acquired Stella’s painting The marriage of reason and squalor of 1959. The following year Stella was given his first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli’s Gallery in New York.

Like many of his generation, Stella initially was enamoured of Abstract Expressionism. He later commented, in one of the series of Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1983–1984, that at this stage, as a young practitioner, his aspirations ‘had already been realized to a certain extent by postwar abstract expressionism, especially by Pollock and de Kooning, but I sensed something in their work which worried me more than the stunning level of their accomplishment impressed me. I sensed a hesitancy, a doubt of some vague dimension which made their work touching, but to me somehow too vulnerable’.2 Stella soon tired of this art style, particularly as it was practised by the second wave of Abstract Expressionist artists, describing their work as ‘chaotic, academic, and mannered’.3

A trinity

September 1991, Yasuyuki Shibata working on one of the woodblocks used to make The Fountain print at Tyler Graphics Ltd.
September 1991, Yasuyuki Shibata working on one of the woodblocks used to make 'The fountain' print at Tyler Graphics Ltd. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

Stella came to seek something more in his art—moving on to a more refined abstraction: ‘I was convinced that a completely independent abstract art, one that really severed its roots from a representational bias for pictorial depiction, would be an improvement and would preserve and defend the accomplishment of abstract expressionist painting.’4 Stella’s direction followed in the footsteps of the artists Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich. ‘If Kandinsky was filling up the landscape with pigment, Malevich was doing greater damage to the figure inhabiting that landscape. First he flattened it like a pancake, and then with incredible dispatch he obliterated it.’5 The two artists, with Piet Mondrian, who have remained an inspiration for Stella, but at another level, he remarked in a recent interview: ‘…for me, the spiritual resides in Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky, they are my spiritual basis. I mean my complete belief and commitment and appreciation of their work allows me to go forward. I can take that as a given and I believe in it’.6

Stella developed a thoroughly abstract style during the 1960s and 70s which focused on density of colour, on symmetrical composition and an all–over design. The last consideration, he believed, forced ‘illusionistic space out of the painting’. He chose to paint on a large scale and developed shaped canvases to frame the
forms of his composition so there would be ‘no tricks to the eye’.

A ‘seduction’

Ken Tyler, following studies at the Art Institute of Chicago and the John Herron School of Art, received a grant to attend the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. This institution was a key element in the print renaissance in America, having been established in the late 1950s specifically to update the art of lithography—a printing technique which was floundering because of the antiquated approach taken in America in the immediate post war period. A creative and brilliant technician, Tyler was to become the Technical Director of Tamarind in 1964–65.

March 1992, woodblock II inked in black with inserted copper plates inked in colour.

March 1992, woodblock II inked in black
with inserted copper plates inked in colour. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

Keen to be an independent player and sufficiently ‘desperate’ to ‘gamble everything’, Tyler set out to work with artists from ‘the very top’.7 In 1965 he moved to establish his own print workshop in Los Angeles, Gemini Ltd, soon to become Gemini Graphic Editions Limited (GEL)—the ‘Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer of print workshops.’8 It achieved its reputation because of Tyler’s philosophy.

A comment made by MoMA’s William Lieberman in his lecture at the University of Southern California in 1965 had ‘shocked’ Tyler by stating the obvious: ‘that great art is made by great artists.’ With this, Tyler deduced that ‘great prints are made only by great artists’.9 With this in mind he set out to ensnare the very best artists of his day, promising them: ‘here is a workshop, there are no rules, no restrictions, do what you want to do’.10 In this approach he took inspiration also from Picasso’s methods of printmaking where the rule book was thrown out. Otherwise, Tyler has noted ‘… if you have all these ‘can’ts’ in there you change the nature of creativity’.11

One of the artists Tyler enticed to his workshop was Frank Stella when, in 1967, Tyler pursued and persuaded the artist to work with him. Stella rejected these overtures at first, responding that he only drew with felt–tipped pens. Indefatigable as always, Tyler took this as a challenge and disguised a lithographic tusche as a marker to draw with and that, according to Tyler, ‘seduced him.’12 Stella remembers resisting ‘as hard as I could’, but Tyler persisted and Stella found himself ‘chained’ in the studio surrounded by aluminium plates and left to draw on them with lithographic crayon.13

Thus began a collaboration of two dynamic figures for over 30 years, described by the art critic and author Robert Hughes ‘as one of the great partnerships in modern American art’.14

At the beginning of the relationship, Stella was initially lukewarm about making prints: ‘I could only see it as a reproductive medium, as in making reproductions of images—you make a print of a painting … I could see prints for their own sake but they were sort of like drawings to me ... I made some in the beginning, but they were basically about making drawings and reproducing those drawings as prints’.15

March 1992, an impression made from woodblock II

March 1992, an impression made from woodblock II. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

True to this original belief, Stella made his first print with Tyler based on a drawing for a large–scale painting, planned but not executed. The painting was intended to be made up of six chevron shaped canvases joined together, but the artist could not find bolts of canvas big enough for the job so the idea lapsed. The possibilities of printmaking were there for him. ‘All he had to do was make a part’,16 and one chevron shape could be repeated again and again to produce the required form. The resulting Star of Persia I was Stella’s first lithograph, printed to perfection and in the latest metallic inks.17

This working method came to be one of the signature elements in Stella’s creative process—recycling imagery and sustaining one art, be it painting, sculpture or print, by another. This was to become the heart of Stella’s artistic development.

Circuit breaking

During a sustained period of painting between 1981–83, Stella produced the Circuits series of assemblages, whose curved forms suggest racing car speedways—a particular passion of the artist. Painted in brilliant colours with rich patterning, they were further embellished by the etching of the surfaces. These works stretched the boundaries of painting by the layering of forms in an inventive, sculptural version of the collage.18 Stella began this new approach with a degree of trepidation, ‘because it seemed so industrial and it didn’t make sense in painterly terms. What made it fall into place for me was the ability to change the surface. I didn’t have to just paint on the surface but was able to etch into the surface. This was an idea that came obviously from printmaking.’19

With his painting informed by his printmaking, the reverse then took place. Surrounded by the scraps of plywood or metal from these works in his studio, Stella—with Tyler’s assistance—developed a very direct way of making prints from inked reliefs collaged from remnants. The results were the ground–breaking Circuits and Swan Engravings series from the first half of the 1980s, which are notable for their rich textures, flamboyant lines and suggestion of three–dimensionality. Stella recalled: ‘… it took quite a while for me to notice it—as it did to notice the routed–out plywood boards of the Circuits series—that working with sculpture in a painterly way could yield a powerful printed tool’.20Although, looking back on his Star of Persia print series, he commented: ‘…whatever their merits as prints might be, they were never able to match the seemingly stamped–out painted versions of the repeated stripe patterns that dictated the format of my best early paintings … The litho–crayon drawing was simply asked to do more than it could do …’21 But, working with Tyler, Stella came to recognise how the print process could enhance his artistic concerns: ‘The power of the press, which grows mightier and mightier— especially as in Ken’s case, it has to conform to ambitions of a supreme master printer—is that power that gives the visual punch to the stamped–out image of the print. This visual punch is a prized effect, because it is both optical and tactile, appealing to eyesight and touch as it brings color and surface, ink and paper together.’22

The notion of the third dimension was further explored by Stella and Tyler later in the 1980s when they developed dome–shaped prints as part of the Moby Dick series that was to follow.

Melville’s epic

March 1992, Stella changing the left hand margin of the proof from Woodblock I with Tyler observing, in the Tyler studio

March 1992, Stella changing the left hand margin of the proof
from woodblock I with Tyler observing, in the Tyler studio. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

Between 1985 and 1993, Stella produced a large group of works which take their titles from the chapters of that great 19th century literary classic, Moby–Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville. They appear in series The Moby Dick Engravings of 1991, Moby Dick domes of 1992, and Moby Dick deckle edges of the following year. He also produced single prints, with titles drawn from great Melville’s epic on the whale, one being The fountain.

The notion of a narrative was something that Stella had begun to explore in earlier series such as Illustrations after El Lissitzky’s had gadya of 1982–84. He found Melville’s text a very visual one, ‘I find the prose pictorial in a way—the rhythms and everything are like the types of things that you can do using shapes … a nice, kind of crisp, moving language …’23 Stella had begun re–reading Melville to his sons, Peter and Patrick. The artist, according to Tyler, had decided very early on in the making of his Moby Dick imagery ‘that each of the 135 chapters of the book would relate to a print, painting or sculpture that he would make … the shape of the configuration dictating the choice of the title—what went with what’.24 The prints, therefore, did not follow the sequence of the book, but rather were linked because of a synergy between word and image. As Stella noted: ‘In general, the imagery and the activity is somewhat akin to what happens in the book, I mean, there’s a lot of turbulence … a lot of things happen, and there’s a lot of movement, and the language is very colorful so that’s what these are about’.25

The fountain takes its title from chapter 85 of Moby Dick which describes in detail the majesty of the sperm whale—a beast of grand proportions which dominates the sea with its wondrous breathing apparatus—the spurt of air through the water—hence the title of this episode.

An epic print

  March 1992, the metal plates, inked in colour ready to be inserted in Woodblock I.
March 1992, the metal plates, inked in
colour, ready to be inserted in woodblock I. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

In terms of scale and ambition, The fountain is the most significant print of all the Moby Dick prints. It should be viewed as Stella’s magnum opus in printmaking—a pivotal example of his abstract style, with signature forms, lines, colours, textures and layering, and produced as such at a scale to reveal the gifts and confidence of an artist who has reached the pinnacle of his career thus far. It is a high point in Stella’s collaboration with Tyler and represents the culmination of their working method developed over some 30 years. Stella and Tyler have refined the process of working from a completed collage, adopting a wide range of printing techniques for the one work and editioning on specially made paper.

In a unique working method, ‘Frank the scavenger,’ as Tyler calls him,26 has created the compositions from what the artist terms ‘debris d’atelier (studio debris)’ where past imagery from Tyler’s ‘supply center’ was recycled, new imagery advanced. Tyler Graphics ‘became a living inventory, a library of shapes and images’ for Stella’s art.27

From mid 1989, Stella worked on the collage for the most part made from fragments of printed proofs ‘using reject prints and partially printed proofs.28 The collage was composed from fragments predominantly from Moby Dick prints using a method of ‘cutting up and stapling down’. For the collage, some fragments from the past were enlarged, some cut into new forms and some shapes reworked. As the process from collage to print took place over the years of the project, the design changed slightly with certain variations in colour and the addition or subtraction of forms. Speaking recently of Stella’s way of working, Tyler commented: ‘He has some mapping system in his head that he can keep all this together and be satisfied.’29

Strianese and Shibata ink Woodblock I with black, blue and grey inks.
Strianese and Shibata ink woodblock I
with black, blue and grey inks. Photographer: Marabeth Cohen–Tyler.

Once Stella had ‘mapped out’ his imagery, Tyler then went to work in his studio with his team of assistants to produce their ’magic’, built upon a phenomenal technical prowess and an unstoppable desire to develop things further. Behind closed doors he seeks to be able to produce in a consistent printable form. During the making of another print, Juam, shortly after The fountain, Tyler reflected: ‘… when we know that we have come to some conclusion with that technique and we can repeat it, we’ll open the door and say, ‘here, this is what we can do’’.30

To translate the planned collage into print, it was decided to use both woodblocks and intaglio plates. Tyler recently commented, ‘My choice of woodblock was made based on the large size of the print. Both Frank and I knew we were going to use some of the existing metal plates from the Moby Dick prints series. It was determined that the black image would be printed from the woodblock and the colors would be from metal insert plates’.31

The sheer bravura of the project can be seen in the scale and in the desire to have the most beautiful papers. In February 1990 Tyler got in touch with the Fuji Paper Mills Co–operative, Tokushima, ‘to devil up large triple ply washi (Kozo fibre)’ on an enormous scale. For such a monumental undertaking, a special 500 ton–platen press had to be designed.32

  February 1993, Falco, Strianese and Tyler ink Woodblock I during the editioning of The Fountain.
February 1993, Falco, Strianese and Tyler ink woodblock I
during the editioning of 'The fountain'. Photographer: Jim McHugh.

The fountain ‘mural’ print is a masterpiece of abstraction with an extraordinary group of shapes coalescing as a unified whole. It is a celebration of brilliant colours, lines are at once bold gestures and delicately exquisite. In one work, Frank Stella ‘the mapper’ and Ken Tyler ‘the magician’ have brought the art of printmaking to an extraordinary stage. Looking back, 10 years after The fountain project began, Tyler recalled the remarkable nature of its evolution. The fountain was a central piece for the Moby Dick series—it was the largest with so much of Stella’s imagery incorporated in this ‘tour de force’ of printmaking: ‘it was a synchronised collaboration in all mediums coming together … the ideas flowed without hindrance … which benefited from all those rehearsals’. Further, the viewer could tell by the imagery ‘that the collaboration was freer in The fountain—there’s a generosity in the image, there is nothing there of a struggle—we knew what we were there for’.33 In the last years of this century, with no sign of this partnership faltering, as Tyler chose to reflect recently: ‘I can’t really say no to his ideas and he really can’t stop having them, and so, in a funny way, we’re a good pair’.34

Jane Kinsman
Senior Curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books
National Gallery of Australia

1 Siri Engberg, ‘Introduction’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics: imaginary places and the art of the everyday (Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre 1997) p 9.
2 Frank Stella, Working space (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press 1986) p 158.
3 Frank Stella, quoted in Barbara Rose American art since 1900 (London, Thames and Hudson, revised edition 1975) pp 181–182.
4 Frank Stella, Working space (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press 1986) p.158.
5 Frank Stella, op.cit. p 71.
6 Frank Stella, quoted in Norbert Lynton ‘The Art Newspaper interview: Frank Stella’ The art newspaper no.94 July–August 1999 p 67.
7 Ken Tyler, in the documentary Reaching out—Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
8 Pat Gilmour, Ken Tyler Master Printer and the American Print Renaissance (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1986) p 7.
9 Ken Tyler, in the documentary Reaching out—Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
10 ibid.
11 Ken Tyler, quoted in Pat Gilmour, ‘Ken Tyler and the limitless possibilities of collaborative printmaking’ in Innovation in collaborative printmaking: Kenneth Tyler 1963–92 (Yokohama, Japan: Yokohama Museum of Art 1992) p 17.
12 Quoted in Pat Gilmour, op.cit. p 168.
13 Frank Stella, ‘Melrose Avenue’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics: imaginary places and the art of the everyday p 33
14 Robert Hughes, Frank Stella: the Swan Engravings (Fort Worth: Fort Worth Art Museum 1984) p 5.
15 Frank Stella, quoted in Siri Engberg, ‘Introduction’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics: imaginary places and the art of the everyday p 10.
16 Ken Tyler, in the documentary Reaching out—Ken Tyler, master printer (Avery Tirce productions 1976).
17 Richard H Axsom, The prints of Frank Stella: a catalogue raisonné 1967–1982 (New York, Hudson Hills, in association with The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor 1983) cat.1.
18 William Rubin Frank Stella 1970–1987 (New York, MoMA 1987) pp 94–117.
19 Frank Stella, from an interview with Christopher C Cook, Frank Stella: from start to finish (Andover: Gallery of American Art 1982) np
20 Frank Stella, ‘Melrose Avenue’ Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics: imaginary places and the art of the everyday p 39.
21 Frank Stella, op. cit. p 40.
22 Frank Stella, op. cit. p 46.
23 Frank Stella, quoted in Jacquelynn Baas, Frank Stella: Moby Dick deckle edges (Mount Kisco, New York, New York 1993) p 7.
24 Ken Tyler, interviewed by Jane Kinsman 3 August 1999.
25 Frank Stella quoted in Jacquelynn Baas Frank Stella: Moby Dick deckle edges pp 7–8. The relationship of text and image has been one of considerable discussion, for example, Phillip Leider, ‘Shakespearian Fish’ Art in America October 1990 pp 172–191; Robert K Wallace, 'Frank Stella's embassy print "The Symphony"' Print collector's newsletter vol.23 no.23 July–August 1992, pp 80–90; Brigitte Reinhardt, 'Frank Stella's "Moby Dick series" in the Städthaus designed by Richard Meier', Frank Stella Moby Dick series; engravings domes and deckle edges (Stuttgart: Cantz, 1993) pp 13–16; Robert K Wallace, 'Stella and Melville: seeing and thinking at the same time', op.cit. pp 29–37.
26 Ken Tyler, in the documentary Frank Stella: imaginary places (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, produced by Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco 1997).
27 Ken Tyler, interviewed by Jane Kinsman 3 August 1999.
28 Ken Tyler, Notes for The fountain for the National Gallery of Australia, dated 13 January 1999.
29 Ken Tyler, in Frank Stella: imaginary places. It is interesting to note that, for part of his career, the process of recycling was a method Kandinsky adopted for his abstractions.
30 Ken Tyler, quoted in Frank Stella: imaginary places. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, produced by Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco 1997).
31 Ken Tyler, letter to Jane Kinsman dated 5 July 1999.
32 Ken Tyler, Notes for The fountain for the National Gallery of Australia, dated 13 January 1999.
33 Ken Tyler, interviewed by Kinsman 3 August 1999.
34 Ken Tyler, in Frank Stella: imaginary places. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre, produced by Tyler Graphics, Mount Kisco 1997).

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

Last updated January 2017