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The second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Helen Frankenthaler has pursued printmaking since the early 1960s. She has continually tested the limits of the printed media with which she works, developing innovative means through which to express her distinctive abstract language. In her prints she aims to create ‘immediate images’, works which look as if they have ‘happened all at once’ (Frankenthaler quoted in Judith Goldman, Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts, exhibition catalogue, Naples Museum of Art, Florida, 2002, p.4).
The Magellan portfolio was begun in January 1996, in collaboration the master printmaker Kenneth Tyler at his studio Tyler Graphics Ltd, and was conceived while Frankenthaler was working on This Is Not a Book (Tate P12095-P12103). The Magellan portfolio project was published in September 2001 in an edition of fourteen. Twelve additional impressions exist which include four artist proofs of which Tate’s version is number four.
Having often favoured planographic printmaking methods such as lithography, which have enabled Frankenthaler to create flat washes of colour similar to those she employs in her paintings, in the Magellan portfolio the artist used only the traditional intaglio techniques of etching, dry-point and aquatint. The portfolio also departs from Frankenthaler’s typically colourful palette, as seen in the lithographic suite Reflections (Tate P12082-12090); all seven prints of Magellan are printed in monochromatic sepia, each plate set against the buff-coloured ground of the paper support. In the colophon text which accompanies the portfolio, Frankenthaler writes: ‘Historically my work has always been inspired by drawing. This series represents my desire to create drawings on copper plates in the traditional sepia colour.’ By manipulating the specific attributes of her medium, Frankenthaler has created a world of texture and intensity. Even within their relatively small framework, Frankenthaler’s compositions possess a monumental and vigorous energy. Dramatic floating forms and rivulets explode through complex assemblages of scorings, hatchings and seeping ink.
Although Frankenthaler is reticent about titling her works, noting that she is ‘often tempted to omit titles because they’re such hooks and handles to the interior of the work’, this portfolio takes the name of the early sixteenth-century Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan. Credited as being the first man to circle the globe, Magellan gave his name to the straits he discovered connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the tip of South America, and to the Magellanic Clouds, two galaxies closest to earth visible from the southern hemisphere. While the portfolio is certainly neither a representation of Magellan, nor his finds, the reference suggests voyages of discoveries, and the awe inspired by the earth and the cosmos. Frankenthaler often draws from nature, and in this portfolio, the rich, earthy qualities of the sepia, and fluctuating, rhythmic images may allude to elemental forces and the phenomena of the natural world. Above all, at the core of Frankenthaler’s work is a desire to evoke a sensation of beauty. As one commentator has noted: ‘Frankenthaler’s prints parallel her paintings, in their sense of spontaneous verve, their intelligence, and their beauty. Indeed, her aim is always to make works that are beautiful (a term she uses frequently).’ (Fine 1993, p.13).
The final print of the portfolio, Magellan VII, reiterates the scale, composition and spontaneity of the first plate (P12070). The artist has taken advantage of the intensity of aquatint and the grainy quality of etching to produce subtle gradations in tone throughout the off-centre explosion of sepia. Threads pull away from this mass, while gestural strokes disperse, apparently at random, across the empty space to its left.
Bonnie Clearwater, Frankenthaler: Paintings on Paper 1949-2002, Miami 2002.
Suzanne Boorsch ‘Conversations with Prints’, Frankenthaler: A Catalogue Raisonné: Prints 1961-1994, New York 1996.
Ruth E. Fine, Helen Frankenthaler: Prints, Washington 1993.