Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Celebrating a Transformative Gift
The artistic career of Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011) is intertwined with both the dominance of abstract painting among the avant-garde artists of the New York School in the mid-twentieth century and the establishment and growth of print workshops dedicated to collaborative printmaking between artists and highly trained master printers. Frankenthaler was the most prolific printmaker of her generation, and she is renowned for her innovative approach to traditional processes. The Princeton University Art Museum is honored to be among the first ten institutions included in the Frankenthaler Prints Initiative, a program designed to place groups of prints by the artist at university affiliated museums. Carefully chosen by Ruth Fine, former curator at the National Gallery of Art, where she organized a major retrospective of Frankenthaler’s prints in 1993, the works reveal the vitality of Frankenthaler’s engagement in the printmaking process over the course of five decades. The exhibition Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity, on view through October 20, highlights the artist’s impressive achievement and influential legacy in printmaking and celebrates this transformative gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
Frankenthaler began creating prints in 1961, and for the next decade she worked almost exclusively with Universal Limited Artist Editions (ULAE) on Long Island, making first lithographs and later etchings, monoprints, and woodcuts. As her reputation as a printmaker grew, so too did the field of artistic print studios that admired Frankenthaler’s abilities in the medium. Untitled (1967) and Green Likes Mauve (1970) are the earliest prints from the gift and were created in collaboration with Chiron Press and Maurel Studios in New York. In both works Frankenthaler develops compositions that echo her approach to painting—she draws the paper support into the picture plane in the screenprint Untitled, as she did with raw canvas in her paintings; and in the pochoir Green Likes Mauve, she emphasizes the layering of colors and the subtle modulations of a color wash much as she did on canvas.
In later decades, new collaborative partnerships introduced Frankenthaler to new techniques and opportunities for further experimentation. The gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation includes exemplary prints from many of these collaborations. When Frankenthaler went to Italy in 1973, for example, she was invited to work with the Rossi family at their studio 2RC Editrice in Rome. There she embraced the workshop’s specialization in etching, aquatint, and sugarlift techniques, producing a series of multiprocess prints with thin lines, a light-filled palette, and aqueous fields of color in delicate compositions that accentuate the studio’s expertise. In 1982 she created twenty-eight monotypes with printmaker Garner Tullis at the Institute for Experimental Printmaking in San Francisco. In these prints she built the image directly on aluminum plates—applying ink with a brush, pouring it in pools, and tearing scraps of rubber to modulate the surface plane—before printing it to create a single, unique impression that integrated painting, sculpture, and printmaking. She teamed up with Tullis on a second series of monotypes in New York nine years later; Monotype VII (1991) dates to this moment. In 1989 Frankenthaler created six large-scale prints with Luis Remba at his Mixografia studio in Los Angeles. Remba and the artist Rufino Tamayo had invented a printmaking method that incorporated cast handmade paper, a process that allowed Frankenthaler to create color prints with a surface sculpted in low relief, as seen in her print Guadalupe (1989).
Frankenthaler’s ambition to think beyond the traditional applications of a technique found an ideal match in her collaborations with the printmaker Kenneth Tyler at his studio Tyler Graphics in upstate New York. Tyler specialized in making prints that mixed multiple techniques into a single composition. For instance, Deep Sun (1983) combines color etching, soft-ground etching, aquatint, spitbite, drypoint, engraving, and mezzotint, each printed in a transparent layer of color such that the order in which they were printed becomes indecipherable, and they appear to occupy a single, integrated visual plane. Once she began working with Tyler in 1975, Frankenthaler returned to his studio repeatedly over the next twenty-six years to achieve some of her most visually distinctive and technically complex etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts. The artist’s final print, Weeping Crabapple (2009), was created at Pace Prints in partnership with Yasuyuki Shibata, a master printer with whom Frankenthaler had worked at Tyler Graphics. The creative collaborations that Frankenthaler developed with print workshops introduced her to new techniques that offered opportunities to explore elements of her practice across media, resulting in the impressive body of work that spanned the final five decades of this influential artist’s career.
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity is made possible through the generosity of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. This exhibition is further supported by the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund in American Art; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; Heather Sturt Haaga and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970; Roberta and Jonathan Golden, Class of 1959; the Robert Wood Johnson III Fund of the Princeton Area Community Foundation; the Julis Rabinowitz Family; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.