Several newspapers have noted the recent passing of American artist Helen Frankenthaler, and her contributions in the field of 20th c. painting. While her accolades in that area are numerous; having received recognition by way of dozens of honorary doctoral degrees, being a presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2002, her accolades in printmaking have yet to be adequately praised. I will begin by acknowledging Frankenthaler’s artistic beginnings and proceed to look at some of her prints, which are nothing short of spectacular.
Helen Frankenthaler was born the third of three daughters to a wealthy New York family. She was educated at the Dalton School studying under Rufino Tamayo, and at Bennington College in Vermont. She later studied with the effervescent Hans Hofmann, whose advocacy of a ‘push-pull’ methodology lead to the Abstract Expressionist movement.
In her mid-twenties, her now famous ‘pour and stain’ approach to painting gained the attention of critic Clement Greenberg, and she was proclaimed the ‘bridge’ between the artists working in Abstract Expressionism to the Color Field Painters. She was included in a show about Post-Painterly Abstraction and the moniker stuck. Her personal relationship with Greenberg, and later marriage to Ab Ex painter/writer Robert Motherwell, propelled Frankenthaler into the midst of two male-dominant art movements, where she became friends with artists David Smith, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Willem and Elaine de Kooning.
Frankenthaler, along with fellow painters Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Elaine deKooning made their work, and rebuffed the idea of feminism, or being recognized for their sex over their artwork. They saw themselves as artists and the equal of their male peers. She said,"I had something to say in terms of painting and went about doing it.... What has made it work, or what makes certain paintings successful or not, has to do with my being a painter and a thinking, feeling person, more than my sex, color, height, origin."
It wasn’t until 1961 that Frankenthaler made her first print, but in the 1970s, she began to gain recognition for her printmaking. She went to Japan and studied traditional woodblock techniques where she produced a body of work inspired by the 11th c. "The Tale of Genji" series.
She became known as an innovative printmaker. Her inventive lithographs, etchings and screen prints resembled her paintings, but most people agree it was her woodblock prints that opened new doors for her creatively. They possessed a fresh approach, both in color and in scale. She was able to produce a level of nuanced color and line rarely seen previously in a medium not known (at least not in the West) for its subtlety. Through her woodblocks and experimental prints, like 1974's "Savage Breeze", she helped re-open the door to printmaking at a time when it had been suffering from lack of interest, and inspired other artists to re-explore that medium.
Frankenthaler went to make prints at ULAE at the invitation of Tatanya Grossman. She took to it like a duck to water and felt the experience liberated her. She also worked with Ken Tyler at Tyler Graphics in upstate New York, and by the time of her death had produced over 150 editioned prints and over two hundred monotype/mixed media works.
“East and Beyond” was Frankenthaler’s first foray into making the grainy, unforgiving wood block receptive to her own sense of vibrant, though translucent, color and organic forms. Her composition was so open compared with traditional woodblock techniques that it has had a deep influence on the medium ever since. It would eventually become known to the development of contemporary printmaking what “Mountains and Sea” had been to the development of Color Field painting.
“Essence Mulbery” (as seen above) is one of the first Frankenthaler prints I remember seeing. I was taken immediately by its subtle, multi-layered colors and what I’ll term ‘respect’ for the surface of the matrix and the feel of the paper on which it is printed . She understood how to work with the grain of the wood to make her images, and though she went onto other printmaking methods, her woodblocks remain my personal favorites. I saw, and still see in them, an extension pathway of her colorful field paintings. One also sees here a reference to Rothko’s own search for color field abstractions is felt in this work, (though he and some of the other Ab Ex painters ran their course and found nothing else to pursue or no new bridge to cross, thus ending their careers and their lives too soon.)
Frankenthaler’s prints eventually bridged the gap between her flowing painting style and her interested in the linear woodblocks. For that reason, I am showing one of her later prints and one of the woodblocks used to create it. The block itself is a work of art, with its delicate cuts and residual stains of color imbedded into the woodblock’s surface. Truly the woman understood the medium as a master should.
Critics weren’t always in agreement with Frankenthaler’s influence on 20th c. art, saying her later paintings didn’t have a certain weight as did her earlier works; that they ventured in to a marginal, pretty coloring phase, speaking of nothing in particular. Their short-sighted observations proclaim the difficulty an artist often has in maintaining the art world’s, or the critic’s, attention once their ‘true moment’ has passed onto successive movements. Artists mature and evolve, which sometimes goes against the forays of the art critic to find the next ‘thing’ that will transform a vision for future artists and movements.
Frankenthaler understood the changes of nature, and the art world. She was substantive and tough when the situation called for it, and in touch with the intuitive nature of color, and of what it means to be ‘human’ within those color-filled environments. Her prints stand alone as an inspiration for artists and printmakers, and her contribution to the medium cannot be questioned or underestimated.