All Classical Radio James Depreist

Helen Frankenthaler’s prints at OJMCHE

Seventeen prints, made between 1961 and 2005, showcase both the artist's prowess in print media and the arc of the print renaissance in the United States.

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black-and-white photograph of artist Helen Frankenthaler in a white Oxford shirt working at an easel
Frankenthaler working on matrix in Mixografia studios, Los Angeles 1986. Courtesy of Shaye Remba and Mixografia.

Helen Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952) is a standard inclusion in art history textbooks. Used as a stand-in to talk through the second generation of Abstract Expressionism, the explanation varies only slightly from textbook to textbook. Here is the framing of the artist’s work and career from H.H. Arnason’s History of Modern Art: “Frankenthaler was the first American painter after Jackson Pollock to see the implications of the color staining of raw canvas to create an integration of color and ground in which foreground and background cease to exist. And, like Pollock, she enjoyed the support of [prominent art critic] Clement Greenberg, who encouraged her formal and technical experiments.”

Any art history textbook is telling a story: The individual artists’ works and accomplishments are incorporated only to the extent that they support that narrative. For Arnason, that story is about Western art, tracing how formal innovation intertwined with and was pushed forward by cultural and social changes in the Western world. The characterization of Helen Frankenthaler and Mountains and Sea makes perfect sense in this context. It would be a grave mistake to assume, however, that the Arnason textbook is telling a complete story; that an artist’s contributions can or should be distilled to a single work made in her early 20s.

print with a dark blue background and two yellow-ish semicircles in the bottom, central-left of the composition
Helen Frankenthaler, All About Blue, 1994 Lithograph and woodcut printed in eight colors from six aluminum plates and one woodblock on Kozo fiber handmade paper Edition 5/38 Published by Tyler Graphics Ltd. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Strode Photographic, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

The exhibition at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Helen Frankenthaler: Works from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation showcases 17 of the artist’s prints made between 1961 and 2005, a date range that spans from the artist’s mid-career to the end of her life (she died in 2011). Art history textbooks may pigeonhole Frankenthaler as a painter and fix her importance in the early 1950s. The prints at OJMCHE emphasize the incompleteness of this standard explanation of Helen Frankenthaler. 

The fact that this print retrospective is at OJMCHE has a parallel in that Helen Frankenthaler’s first, early career retrospective was at The Jewish Museum in New York in 1960. That show featured 19 paintings created between 1951 and 1959, including the now infamous Mountains and Sea. The show was far from Frankenthaler’s first major foray into the art world. Her 1955 painting Trojan’s Gate was in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and her painting Jacob’s Ladder (1957) had been awarded first prize at the 1959 Paris Biennale. It was, however, the first time that so many of her works had been exhibited together, and was thus an opportunity to appreciate her development as a young painter. 

black-and-white photograph of a woman sitting at a table
Photograph of Helen Frankenthaler by Robert Motherwell from the 1960 catalog ‘An Exhibition of Oil Paintings by Helen Frankenthaler’ at the Jewish Museum of the Jewish Theological Seminar of America

In preparation for writing about the OJMCHE show, I found a copy of the 1960 catalog through the library. More pamphlet than catalog, the yellowed pages and decomposing glue of the tipped-in color illustration show its age. Equally antiquated is the tenor of the catalog essay by Frank O’Hara, which begins: “The beauties of Helen Frankenthaler’s work are various and dramatic. As much as those of any contemporary, her major works signify the whole psychic figure and it is all there: back, shoulder, arm, wrist, hand and eye – she is a dashing and irresistible artist.” The page opposite has a snapshot of the artist taken by Robert Motherwell, her husband, who she wed in 1958. She’s smiling at a table set with daisies; her work is nowhere in sight. 

Frankenthaler, Motherwell, and O’Hara surely knew each other as they ran in the same New York circles, but I was particularly taken with O’Hara writing the 1960 catalog essay because of how it neatly it intersects with this show and with Frankenthaler’s burgeoning interest in print as a medium.

five color lithograph with abstract shapes in blue, orange, black, light, and dark blue
Helen Frankenthaler, First Stone, 1961 Lithograph drawn with tusche wash and crayon Printed in five colors from five stones on white wove paper Edition 10/12 Published by Universal Limited Art Editions Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Aaron Wessling Photography, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

The opening print in the chronologically organized OJMCHE show is First Stone from 1961 published by Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). ULAE was still a new venture in 1961; it was started by Tatyana Grosman, supposedly after she happened to discover Bavarian lithographic stones in her Long Island garden in the mid-1940s. The first book published by ULAE was Stones, by none other than Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, published after two years of work in 1960, only a year before Frankenthaler made her first lithograph at ULAE.

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First Stone reads as an initial foray into the medium. It seems unlikely that Frankenthaler had much, if any, experience with the medium prior. The prints in this show, with their date range beginning in the 1960s, closely hew to the renaissance in printmaking in the United States. Grosman and ULAE were the literal avant garde. 

A major strength of the OJMCHE show is curator Bruce Guenther’s decision to include detailed description of the printing process on each of the labels. The label for First Stone explains that it was “Lithograph drawn with tusche wash and crayon; Printed in five colors from five stones on white wove paper.” For this print, and it is an outlier in this respect, it is easy enough to identify the five colors: black, an orange-red, yellow, and a lighter and darker shade of blue. The tusche wash is most evident in the light blue and the hazy edges of the black shape; the crayon in the red and single black flourish at the center of the composition. Frankenthaler’s experimentation with the consistency of the tusche is emphasized in the squiggles at the center of the large black amoeba at the composition’s left. 

Frankenthaler started with lithography but explored all printmaking mediums over the course of her career. Yellow Span from 1968, also at ULAE, is a sugar-lift aquatint “Printed in four colors from two copper plates on ivory handmade paper.” Spoleto from 1972 is a “five colors from five screens” silkscreen. The idiosyncrasies of silkscreen are evident in the faint undulations of each of the brightly colored edges. 

silkscreen on yellow background with background with pink and orange abstract shapes in upper corners of the composition; black diagonal lines bisect
Helen Frankenthaler, Spoleto, 1972 Silkscreen Printed in five colors from five screens on white wove paper Edition 30/100 Published by Spoleto Festival Foundation, New York Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Strode Photographic, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

The primary studio Frankenthaler worked with for earlier prints, ULAE remained a printmaking force. But as the medium took off in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, it was joined by other studios. June Wayne started the famous Tamarind in 1960 and trained, among many other printmakers, Ken Tyler who started Gemini G.E.L. in 1966 in Los Angeles. In 1973, Tyler moved to New York and started Tyler Graphics. Presumably it was a combination of geography and reputation that led Frankenthaler to start working with Tyler Graphics Ltd. 

Tyler certainly had a reputation for helping artists to explore printmaking in a “no holds barred” and “money is no object” sort of way. Tyler Graphics Ltd. had the expertise, time, materials, and resources to help artists realize their vision. Tyler is famously quoted in a documentary film (Reaching Out: Ken Tyler, master printer) as saying, “Here is a workshop, there are no rules, no restrictions, do what you want to do.” 

Frankenthaler’s prints became significantly more complex when she started working with Ken Tyler. Harvest, the first work in the show made at the studio, is a lithograph but printed in “six colors from three stones and three aluminum plates” – so a ramp-up in complexity in that it is combining colors on the same stone and using both stone and aluminum plates.

Relief print is the medium in which Frankenthaler has made, according to her 2011 obituary in The New York Times, “the most original contribution to printmaking.” The first relief work in the OJMCHE show is Essence Mulberry from 1977, made at Tyler Graphics Ltd. The image was made on handmade Gampi paper, the edges irregular and the bottom of the composition left blank, presumably to emphasize its quality. 

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abstract woodcut - printed area is in the top two-thirds of the composition
Helen Frankenthaler, Essence Mulberry, 1977 Woodcut Printed in eight colors from four blocks, one each of oak veneer, birch, walnut, and lauan plywood on buff Gampi handmade paper Edition 28/46 Published by Tyler Graphics Ltd. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Strode Photographic, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Typically in woodcut, negative space is carved from the matrix (block), and the positive space is inked and then printed on the substrate (most often paper). In relief printing traditions that use multiple colors, such as Japanese woodcuts, each color has its own block, but the blocks are all the same shape and printed successively. Frankenthaler dispensed with the medium’s rigidity by cutting the block into pieces with a jigsaw and then inking the reassembled shapes. Freefall from 1992, printed at Tyler Graphics Ltd., is a perfect example. The single plate was “printed in twelve colors from one plate assembled from twenty-one mahogany plywood blocks.” Not wanting to be outdone, the paper is “white handmade paper sheet hand-dyed in fifteen colors from thirteen plexiglass and five Mylar stencils.” Nothing about these woodcuts is typical. 

woodcut in teals and blues with yellow accents
Helen Frankenthaler, Freefall, 1992-93 Hand-dyed paper and woodcut White handmade paper sheet hand-dyed in fifteen colors from thirteen plexiglass and five Mylar stencils, and printed in twelve colors from one plate assembled from twenty-one mahogany plywood blocks Edition 6/30 Published by Tyler Graphics Ltd. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Aaron Wessling Photography, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Ken Tyler closed Tyler Graphics Ltd. in 2000. He was 69 and the market for grandiose and complex prints by famous artists, which boomed with the art market in the 1980s and early 1990s, had cooled. Tyler knew that the boom wouldn’t last, explaining to the print historian Pat Gilmour in the mid-80s that “this thing is going to blow itself up eventually.” He was right; the market bottomed out and his model wasn’t sustainable without it. 

Madame Butterfly, given this context, feels even more like a swan song, not for Frankenthaler necessarily (she continued working for another six years until her health began to fail), but certainly for Tyler. The composition is made from three panels, six and a half feet wide altogether. The colors are so subtle and variegated that it is hard to believe it is a print at all, let alone a relief print. It is clearly no ordinary relief print: it boasts 102 colors from 46 blocks. The wood grain of the three panels, light sienna in the center sheet and sienna on either side, serve as a reminder that this is indeed a print. Even so, it’s hard to believe. 

Soak-stain appearance woodcut with central white element in the center of the composition
Helen Frankenthaler, Madame Butterfly, 2000 Woodcut, Printed in one-hundred-two colors from forty-six woodblocks (30 birch, 14 maple, 1 lauan, 1 fir) on three sheets of sienna (center sheet) and light sienna (left/right sheets) handmade paper Edition AP 10/14 Published by Tyler Graphics Ltd. Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Strode Photographic, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

Looking at Frankenthaler’s prints, made over the course of her life, it’s hard to fathom that there’s a narrative in art history that isolates her as a painter. Other parts of the narrative about Frankenthaler aren’t wrong so much as they are outright dismissive – the most famous even embedded in the textbook sentence that I started with – she “enjoyed the support of Clement Greenberg.” Frankenthaler dated Greenberg for five years in her early twenties; the insinuation that she was only famous because of that relationship clung to her career throughout her life and continues to cling to her legacy. 

Beauty is another specter that chased Frankenthaler — her work was too pretty and therefore lacked substance but also that she was beautiful. To return to Frank O’Hara’s catalog essay from 1960, she was “dashing and irresistible” and succeeded because of it. 

Her marriages and relationships were regarded as significant in ways that never affected her male colleagues. Her husband, Motherwell, also made prints at ULAE; the date on his earliest prints, Poet I and Poet II, is 1961-1962. I want to believe, though I admittedly have no proof, that it was Frankenthaler’s influence that brought Motherwell to printmaking. In any case, he never excelled at it in the way she did. Few, if any, of her fellow abstract expressionists did. Printmaking was Frankenthaler’s domain, maybe even her revenge. The show at OJMCHE showcases her mastery of the medium. 

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Helen Frankenthaler is the last show to open in OJMCHE Executive Director Judy Margles’ 24-year tenure. Fellow ArtsWatch writer Friderike Heuer wrote a poignant farewell to outgoing OJMCHE director Margles, noting the multifaceted requirements of being a director of a Jewish Museum and the many fraught issues requiring navigation. Margles’ grace in approaching difficult topics was on full display at the press opening, acknowledging that the exhibition was opening at a “harrowing time” in the world and while there are “no easy answers to hatred…art offers the possibility of empathy and perspective.” Margles noted that Abstract Expressionism emerged as the world was reeling from the Holocaust and that art, particularly abstract art, can be considered on its own terms – “art for art’s sake” – and that this exhibition leans into art that “gives hope through what is beautiful.” 

abstract woodcut, printed with ten colors -distinct orange and green shapes
Helen Frankenthaler, CEDAR HILL, 1983 Woodcut Printed in ten colors from four mahogany and eight cherry woodblocks on handmade pale pink Kozo fiber paper tinted with vegetable dye Edition AP 18/18 Published by Crown Point Press Collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer Image: Aaron Wessling Photography, Courtesy of Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

There is no question that the work is gorgeous, and I understand Margles’ sentiment. I see why she framed the exhibition in this way. It makes sense, but given the tension between Frankenthaler and beauty, I want to suggest an alternate framing, one that I’d argue is as rooted in the work as it is pressing.

Typically, I struggle to write about something because I need to figure out what I think about it and how to communicate that. Here, I struggled not because I didn’t know what to say but because I work at a college (Pacific Northwest College of Art) and this exhibition is at OJMCHE. Given current events and the toxic rhetoric around Israel and Palestine that is plaguing college campuses, there is the real possibility that my writing about an exhibition at OJMCHE will be taken by a student, even a colleague, as evidence of my tacit support of Israel’s war in Gaza, that I don’t care about Palestinian lives, or that I view the current situation with anything other than horror at humanitarian tragedy.

This conclusion seems absurd but its general ilk is prevalent in contemporary discourse. It’s oversimplification based on incomplete information and shaped according to the interests of the narrator. There are some simplifications, such as Arnason’s passages on Helen Frankenthaler, that prioritize information deemed “relevant” to the narrative and leave out everything else. That’s just history; it’s up to the reader to recognize the incompleteness, to understand that an artist didn’t make one interesting work in her early 20s and nothing else happened or matters. 

The more pernicious simplifications are the ones that take incomplete information and a disregard for historical complexity, then throw in academic jargon or buzzwords and cloak the whole thing in a mantle of self-righteousness. The past months have shown the attraction of this bandwagon, even pressure to jump on so as not to be deemed “on the wrong side.” These simplifications discourage conversation and dismiss questioning, presuming them to be failures of an agreed upon moral code. The irony is that it’s many of the people on the bandwagon who are supposed to be the ones untangling and explaining history and culture in the first place. 

Maybe it’s naive to compare these two simplifications — to suggest that they’re even in the same category — but I find myself seeing these prints as offering insight into both. It’s impossible to see the 46 blocks or to decipher the 102 colors. The hand-dyed paper with its multiple plexiglass and Mylar stencils isn’t obvious. The months of labor, made possible only through decades of expertise, isn’t obvious, either. Frankenthaler’s prints ask us to lean into complexity and acknowledge that there is more than meets the eye in any one impression.

I don’t think this show’s hook should be beauty as a conduit for hope. Its hook should be complexity and the hope that comes from appreciating and contemplating it. That’s the kind of hope that responds to the present moment: Hope that conversation and disagreements without demonization can return; Hope that even the biggest and most seemingly intractable problems can be solved with an eye toward shared humanity. 

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Helen Frankenthaler: Works from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation will be at Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education through March 24, 2024. The museum is at 724 N.W. Davis Street in Portland and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11-4 pm.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing: “These simplifications discourage conversation and dismiss questioning, presuming them to be failures of an agreed upon moral code.” This observation and your honest discussion was insightful, helpful, maybe even brave.

  2. Great article. Thanks for describing the process of printmaking. It is still kind of unimaginable how the relief prints were made. I am excited to see the show. Frankenthaler is one of my favorite artists and has been throughout my own art career.

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