View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms
Helen Frankenthaler, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter, has pursued printmaking since the early 1960s. Her prints parallel her paintings and Frankenthaler has continually pushed 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 idea for This Is Not A Book arose from Frankenthaler’s long-held desire to produce prints for a bound volume. However, without a text to illustrate and continually unable to find anything appropriate, it appeared to be an impossible project. Frankenthaler acknowledged that she had ‘never wanted to illustrate or “explain” the contents of ... [her] work in word-and-picture format’, and instead, began without a text to create ‘this book that is not a book’ (Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Apologia’, This Is Not A Book, 1997).
Frankenthaler began the project in November 1995, working on it over a period of two years. The prints were produced in close collaboration with the master printmaker Kenneth Tyler with whom she has worked regularly. Shortly after beginning This Is Not A Book, Frankenthaler also embarked on the Magellan portfolio (P12070- P12076), also published with Kenneth Tyler at his studio Tyler Graphics Ltd, Mount Kisco, New York, in 2001.
The thirty-six page bound book of This Is Not a Book consists of two title pages, nine intaglio prints, an Apologia and Notes written by the artist. Produced in an edition of 50, an additional 14 artist’s proofs were published, of which Tate’s is number 14. In addition to these, a further nine sets of proofs were produced, along with unbound trial, ‘work’ and cancellation proofs. Three of the nine intaglio prints were also chosen to be published as separate prints, in a numbered and signed edition of 60, plus proofs (A Page From A Book I, P12079, A Page From A Book II, P12080 and A Page From A Book III, P12081).
The prints made for the book all exemplify the artist’s innovative technical approach, which blurs the boundaries between painting and traditional intaglio print techniques. In the Notes, Frankenthaler describes the unusual method she employed to create the prints:
After I worked on the plates, weeks later Ken presented me with positive and negative proofs in both black and sepia, and sheets of mylar ... in giving me both black and sepia pulls, he naturally assumed I would use these proofs and mylar as references to make corrections to my etched plates. Instead, since they looked so inviting, I worked directly on the 26 proofs making each a unique work on paper.
I had to do it my way and make it up as I went along ... I used pastels, crayons, inks and paints of all kinds. I poured, rubbed, smeared. Some of the results show no sign of the original copper etching – perhaps just a hint here or there of what lay underneath, while others reveal much more engraving.
Adding more plates, which were proofed and reworked many times, we finally created proofs that closely mirrored my hand-coloured work proofs. Ken and etcher Anthony Kirk brought to bear their genius as artisans. The three of us worked together in a beautiful dialogue filled with feeling and invention. (Frankenthaler, ‘Notes’, This Is Not A Book)
Here Frankenthaler not only reveals her own desire to break the mould of traditional techniques but also the importance of the collaborative aspect of her printmaking practice.
All nine prints in This Is Not A Book are horizontal in format, and the images include many of the motifs which frequently recur in Frankenthaler’s work. Despite this, each is a highly individual, self-contained composition. This variety results in a constant shift in rhythm as the artist explores a host of contrasting forms and textures, developing dialogues between solid/void, dark/light, colour/monochrome, density/weightlessness, painting/drawing. Much like a series of ‘songs without words’, the prints have a lyricism, beauty and energy which is open to interpretation, and as in all her work, Frankenthaler denies any fixed explanation of her imagery. As she notes in the Apologia:
For most of us, most of the time, horizontal usually implies landscape, vertical implies personage. There are no rules. Does my ‘reader’ see nightscapes, climates and environments, interiors, moods of joy, spirits, love, passion, expressions of rage or playfulness, planets, prone or upright figures, whimsical gardens, storms, mythical gods, geographical or atmospheric scenery? Perhaps. Hopefully, these pages provide a growing and truth-giving order, pleasure, a fresh light and a kind of recognition.
Frankenthaler rounds off the book with an explosive final composition. A wash of purple covers the edges of the printing plate, staining well beyond the original rectangle, making it the largest image of the sequence. The apparently random arrangement of inky marks gives a sense of gestural freedom which epitomises Frankenthaler’s practice.
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.