If the phrase ‘wood art’ only brings to mind the greatest Linkin’ Logs castle you ever built, it may be time to walk to the Yale University Art Gallery for a cultural update.
Helen Frankenthaler’s first woodcuts were cut by hand with a jigsaw in 1973. Her technique and the technology of printing have evolved since then, but the prints themselves remain a puzzle. The process and the beauty of Frankenthaler’s prints are the subject of the art gallery’s exhibition, “Helen Frankenthaler: The Woodcuts.” The show, which features more than 20 woodcuts, as well as proofs and original woodblocks, dissects the deliberation and craftsmanship behind Frankenthaler’s highly influential printmaking.
A second-generation abstract expressionist, Frankenthaler is best known for “stain painting,” in which paint is poured directly onto unprimed canvas and allowed to soak into the fiber of the cloth.
Frankenthaler’s earliest stain painting, the 1952 work “Mountains and Sea,” was the first of many ethereal, abstract works whose naturalistic style evoked an older tradition of landscape paintings.
Though Frankenthaler did not make her first woodcuts until two decades later, they display the same preoccupations with medium, color, and naturalism. An early incarnation of her 1977 woodcut “Mulberry Essence” included mulberry essence in its most literal form — juice from the berries.
The progression from the faded juice — still visible in working proofs — to the stunningly rich, vibrant final woodcut typifies the show’s multidimensional fascination.
Alone in the show, her fifth draft of “Mulberry Essence” even includes Frankenthaler’s directions to the printer, annotated directly on the print. The most mysterious of these — since the work is composed primarily of one dark plum shape and two blue ones — is “No Schmaltz!” All comments provide insight into Frankenthaler’s painstaking development of the color, placement, and texture of every plate.
The labels accompanying many of the works detail the fruitful collaboration between the artist and her collaborators, woodcutters and paper makers at Taylor Graphics Limited, her longtime printers.
Yasuyuki Shibata cut and printed each block of wood and used special water based inks to give the works their painterly feel.
Tom Strianese’s handmade paper so successfully emulates the grain of wood that among the 1998 series “Tales of the Genji” it is hard to distinguish one work painted directly onto wood from four prints on paper. Overlaid with pink and blue ink, the dusty rose paper of “Cameo,” completed in 1980, creates the depth achieved by painters like Marc Rothko only after the application of many layers of paint to canvas.
It took the trio of Frankenthaler, Shibata and Strianese two years to print the 2000 triptych “Madame Butterfly,” a masterpiece of artistry and craftsmanship. The final version had 102 colors printed from 46 blocks of wood — 30 birch, 14 maple, one lauan plywood and one fir, the label notes meticulously.
Such logistical triumphs, exaggerated by the imposing size (six and a half by five feet, in one case) and dramatic innovations of works like 1998’s “Freefall” and the slightly smaller “Radius” (1992-3), threaten to overwhelm the visual experience of the works themselves. It is almost necessary to go over the exhibition twice: once to read all of the printed labels and to try to work out how all of the pieces fit together, and again just to look at the prints. Their vibrant colors and swirling, landscape-like forms deserve to serve as more than just a reference for the labels.
Unfortunately, though, the exhibition tends toward treating them as just that. It’s disappointing that the exhibition does so little exploration of their stylistic origins. Frankenthaler’s collaboration with traditional ukiyo-e printmakers in Japan is mentioned, and the Japanese subject-matter of “Madame Butterfly” and “Tales of the Genji” is self-evident, but the exhibition makes little of the connection.
Surprisingly, this exhibition is the first anywhere to focus only on Frankenthaler’s woodcuts. Coordinated by the Naples Museum of Art in Florida, and curated at Yale by Suzanne Boorsch, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, it is receiving a lot of well-deserved attention. Headed for showings at the Jewish Museum in New York, the Portland Museum in Oregon, and a Japanese museum, the Center for Contemporary Art in Fukushima-ken, it is also being turned into a documentary for public television tentatively scheduled to be on the air by the spring of 2003.
The translucent brilliance of the colors, along with the genius and innovation of their creators and careful curation, make this exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts sublimely appealing to the eye and a tantalizing logical problem.