Helen Frankenthaler and the Ukiyo-e woodcut technique
Jacob Lewis, Director of Pace Prints talks about Helen Frankenthaler’s Ukiyo-e style woodcuts. The ancient Japanese technique of staining wood blocks with pigments and then pressing the color on to the surface of the paper (or fabric) was re-created by Frankenthaler and Pace Prints to produce fluid imagery in her 2004 work titled “Snow Pines”.
As you may already know, Helen Frankenthaler was a pioneer of another technique called Color Fielding – a form of non-objective painting, that allowed for thinned-out oil or acrylic pigment to be applied, often times poured and spread, directly onto the unprimed canvas. An unprimed surface is typically not treated with gesso or any other form of sizing, which in turn allows for the paint to pool and stain the canvas. The resulting effect is that the paint floats on the surface. Color Fielding technique was also used by Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland.
An exhibition of Frankenthaler’s work from 1950-1959, titled ‘Painted on 21st Street’ was on display at Gagosian Gallery from March 8 – April 13, 2013 in the gallery’s 21st street location in Chelsea. Paintings in that exhibition were from the artist’s early period. Gestural, strong and confident compositions, where we can still see the presence of a brush. Her later works would become wider, more open and in some cases deeply saturated in less defined fields.
Video interview excerpt:
Jacob Lewis: This is a beautiful ukiyo-e woodcut style print we did in 2009 called ‘Snow Pines‘. Out of all the works we’ve done with Helen, this is my favorite one. What I’m finding is that the sensitivity that she was able to put in her colors, and at the same time she was able to work with the printer on pulling the colors from the woodcuts. Now, if you don’t know the ukiyo-e style printing tradition is, we are using pigments mixed with water that are then lightly brushed onto a piece of wood. We аre creating stains and that’s how we build up this image in the print. This is also the way that we are able to produce an edition.
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So, one of the reasons we find this piece to be so iconic and one of the things that’s happening. As we know about Helen’s paintings, which are all developed by stains, these the ukiyo-e style woodcuts are produced by creating stains, and as we look into this light blue and green area the turquoise and the blues that are created. This, at one point, all looked like that. But Helen came back with the idea of carving into the block again and creating this white, which she placed down on top of it and pushed the color back, which all of the sudden pushed these greens forward and started creating depth. At the same time what happened to it is certain elements got carved down again to where we started to see these fine details that came in to create these brushstrokes and mark making just like she would have done and what she did do onto the block.
The other thing that I find very beautiful about this is this very little bit of red that she very sensitively put here, which connects us to the surface. Things become grounded and the whole image becomes full. I mean, this is really an outstanding example of what she’s done for us.
This article and video © galleryIntell. Artwork © Helen Frankenthaler, courtesy of Pace Prints.