Printing without Limits: Frank Stella, Ken Tyler, and the Making of Juam
Frank Stella’s rise to fame as a member of the new generation of artists defining the avant-garde of American painting was meteoric following his 1958 graduation from Princeton, so much so that he continues to be best known for his work in that medium. Stella’s impact as a printmaker, however, is no less significant; between 1967 and 2001, he created more than 315 individual print editions divided into twenty-eight series, a body of work that represents one of the most prolific and innovative contributions to printmaking in the twentieth century. Stella’s career as a printmaker and the evolution of his technique developed in partnership with master printmaker Ken Tyler, first upon Tyler’s invitation to create editions at Gemini G.E.L., his workshop in Los Angeles, and later at Tyler Graphics in Bedford, New York. Collaborating as artist and craftsman, Stella and Tyler embraced the challenge of expanding the technical capabilities of modern printmaking with each series they made. The result was the development of multimedia prints of unprecedented scale and breathtaking complexity.
This extraordinary artistic relationship is exemplified in Juam (1997), a standout work of the series Imaginary Places (1994–99), even within that series’ remarkably innovative and diverse imagery. The last of four consecutive print cycles Stella titled after specific literary works, the series aligns itself with Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi’s The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980). Their book brings together detailed, evocative accounts of the geography, culture, and ways of life of fictional places, such as Narnia or Middle Earth, that are described in world literature from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Stella assigned specific place names to each print edition. Juam traces back to Herman Melville’s novel Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), an adventure story set in the South Seas that includes observations of a fictional island with that name. Melville describes the island as imposing upon first view—a topography of sharp reliefs, where “a dark green pile of cliffs present a range of steep, gable-pointed projections, as if some titanic hammer and chisel had shaped the mass.”
|Ken Tyler preparing a cast aluminum element for Frank Stella’s Juam by buffing and polishing the surface; the partially assembled plate showing carved woodblock base with honeycomb aluminum, etched magnesium, and copper plates, Tyler Graphics Ltd., Mount Kisco, New York, 1997. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Gift of Kenneth Tyler, 2002. Photos by Marabeth Cohen-Tyler|
A soaring composition more than six and a half feet high, Juam utilized nearly every process known in Western printmaking. Stella began the composition by creating an elaborate collage of handmade papers, repurposed graphic elements from commercial sources, reproductions of his previous works, and digitally rendered forms. The artist then collaborated with Tyler and his workshop team to translate each pattern, image, and gesture from the collage into an element within one printing plate. Sixty-six found and fabricated metal printing elements derived from Stella’s various sculpture projects at the time were cut and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle onto a carved wood baseplate to construct the first state of this single, large-scale, multi-technique printing plate. The atmospheric aquamarine field from which the central composition arises, for example, was created by flattening a large section of honeycombed aluminum and sandcasting the material to create the textured surface. To this Stella added lengths of wire—circular links and a spiral shape cut from stainless steel—that appear as deeply impressed linear elements throughout the composition. A large cloud or coral reef–like form arcs across the right-hand side of the composition and upon closer viewing reveals impressive depth from the surface of the print. To achieve this, Stella poured molten metal in mounds, drips, skeins, and splashes to produce sculptural elements that created a relief when printed and are visible as recessed pools across the surface of the paper. Each piece of the assembled plate was individually inked in vivid color, and the plate was printed with a hydraulic press in a single impression onto an enormous sheet of handmade, hand-dyed paper. The various printing techniques ensured that lines and planes were pressed into the paper with varying degrees of depth—rendering spatial depth as both a material reality and a visual illusion in the final printed image. Between the first state of the print and the final composition, Stella added additional shapes and textured patterns, selected from a library of printed source materials kept at Tyler Graphics; these were then transformed into a new assembly of 102 irregularly shaped metal plates that were individually inked, fitted together, and printed in one heavily embossed impression. Created in these separate stages over a period of two years, the final state of Juam became one of the most complex and technically ambitious prints Frank Stella and Ken Tyler produced; arguably, it is the crowning achievement of their long collaborative association. As Stella recalled in 1987: “Ken always wanted to try things. . . . In the beginning I would punish him by saying no to every idea. Now I gratify him by saying yes. Now no process is too outrageous or too expensive.” Indeed, Juam is a testament to the audaciousness, ambition, and immense success Stella and Tyler achieved by printing without limits.
Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings
Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art