As we navigate through this difficult time, we thought that we would share with you a 12@12 we had a couple of weeks ago on March 4, 2020 with Mary Tasillo on the exhibition Frankenthaler on Paper. Thank you Mary for sharing your notes!
I’d like to talk a bit about process. The premise is: printmaking doesn’t matter. That’s not my premise — but a premise of the art world that’s still prevalent today, even as artists’ approach to medium has completely opened up. We’re very fortunate at Penn to have spaces like Arthur Ross Gallery that include print and works on paper amongst their curation.
Search the library catalog here at Penn, and you will find many monographs on Frankenthaler’s painting, filled with oil paintings on canvas, but little attention given to her paintings on paper and to her prints.
A story – noting that my background is in book arts and printmaking. Several years ago I attended a conference of the College Book Arts Association, where we were joined by an art historian presenting on the work on Nancy Spero – a 20th century painter who worked on paper. The speaker told us, “you book artists don’t understand how far off the map of art history you are. I’m working on an artist who paints on paper instead of canvas, and that’s beyond the pale. So imagine where your print and book work stands in relation to that.”
This exhibit demonstrates a controversial fact: work on paper is art!
My focus today is primarily on Frankenthaler’s prints – though her explosive, gestural painting and pouring of stains of color across canvas certainly is represented in paintings on paper here – and informed my interest in her work as a student at Bennington College, Frankenthaler’s alma mater. It is worth thinking how the landscape at Bennington College informed Frankenthaler’s work: certainly much has been written about her mentors there and their interest in Cubism, but also for someone who grew up in New York City, the extended time working in the foothills of the Vermont mountains must have shifted her idea of possible landscapes.
Helen Frankenthaler considered her working in painting primary. The marriage of gesture and emotion, and the ability to translate that into form through the artist’s action, were paramount. So imagine the challenges of throwing up a bunch of slow process (printmaking!) in between the artist and the final product. And imagine the difference between working alone in the studio, and the collaboration with master printer and technicians necessary in the print shop.
Frankenthaler’s prints span a range of techniques, from lithography to etching to monotype to woodcut. When she began making prints in 1960, printmaking was less of an artistic medium unto itself than it was a method of reproduction. An artist would work with a master printmaker, who would work to translate the artist’s drawing or painting to the print medium. Thus, lithography, which could accept a range of painterly marks as well as photomechanical reproduction, was widely used. (An artist could draw directly onto a stone; the master printer would then acid etch the image into the stone and print from it.)
Frankenthaler was reluctant to join her fellow artists in the print studio – she was of Robert Rauschenberg’s early school of thought that “the second half of the 20th century is no time to begin drawing on rocks” – but she was eventually persuaded to come and try a project at Universal Limited Art Editions. Her approach to printmaking was unique. She’d start by drawing on stones, Universal would print from them, but then she would take the proofs and spend several days, or perhaps months, looking at them, cutting them up, drawing on them and reassembling them in different ways. “This is probably the most complicated form of printmaking,” notes master printer Ken Tyler, who worked with Frankenthaler at Tyler Graphics. Presumably from their stones must be edited, remade, added; they couldn’t be cut up and reassembled like the proofs.
When asked about decision making in her work, Frankenthaler “It’s a matter of how you resolve your doubts.” While she was interested in work looking like it arrived in one grand moment, certainly Frankenthaler labored over these doubts.
Frankenthaler comments: “I often feel at the end of an edition we should go to the Waldorf or the Mayo Clinic.”
Art marking is hard work.
Frankenthaler continued to make prints — it gave her an arena to challenge herself through the constraints of a medium with which she was not facile.
Arguably, Universal Limited Art Editions and Frankenthaler are the first to seriously attempt woodcut as fine art print in the US in 1973 (very few painters have taken on woodcut). Her approach to the woodcut was unique — sawing pieces of wood into unique shapes, which would be inked up and registered together into a composition. This process was inspired by Edvard Munch’s working process. (East & Beyond, 1973, and what eventually become Savage Breeze, 1974)
Frankenthaler notes that making “a fluid shape out of cut wood is so foreign to me…. I struggle to transcend it.” She notes that it was the medium she enjoyed the least. However, those struggles bore real fruit. If gesture was a struggle, her focus on getting the grain of the wood, the scale, and the colors right in relationship to one another demonstrated a command of balance. “Scale is the whole thing,” she remarked. She describes herself as impatient in her approach. “It’s very hard to be a perfectionist and fantastically thorough at once. It’s also exhausting. And I do it.”
(Her take on printmaking seems to soften over time – as time goes on, she is more likely to mention the rewards as well.)
I see the woodcut as containing the same kind of dialogue with material that the sculptor must have. “You force something on it and it gives you an answer back“ – and back and forth, until you arrive at a unified form.
Frankenthaler’s insistence that the hand of the artist be present in the work forced her into a more intimate relationship to the technical parts of printmaking than she professed interest in – and some technical understanding is, in fact, required to really be able to push the form in the way that she did when working at Tyler Graphics, where both she and the shop continued to push experimentation with the form in new ways. (Essence Mulberry, 1977, is their first collaboration.)
She mixed her own inks (not a given in the artist and master printer relationship), selected custom papers, and eventually began painting directly onto woodblocks to communicate her vision to the shop. She manipulated the surface of the block in unusual ways, roughing up the surface of the block in a technique she called “guzzying.” Consider the many layers of printing that went into simply building a color field – 8, 22, 54 …. This layering, and attention to pulling out the wood grain, has informed much of what I admire in contemporary printmaking.