A leading pioneer of Abstract Expressionism, Helen Frankenthaler paved her way as a young artist by exploring colour relationships and the fluidity of paint in her large paintings of organic forms. In 1977 she created Essence Mulberry, a woodcut print that re-directed her practice and revealed to her the possibilities of printmaking. Her private work ethic as a painter was newly extended to include collaborative input from master printmaker Kenneth Tyler, who guided Frankenthaler through the technical and practical side of printmaking. Frankenthaler’s woodcuts are a particularly notable and powerful part of her career, due to the originality of her imagery and her devotion to the precision of the printmaking process. Proving to be a well-suited match, Frankenthaler and Tyler began an extensive collaboration that spanned 25 years following the creation of Essence Mulberry. It marks a peak in Frankenthaler’s printmaking endeavours and endures as one of her most popular and internationally recognised works.
Having worked almost exclusively within the realms of painting, Frankenthaler initially had reservations about embarking into printmaking territory. It was a foreign medium that required a predictability she was unfamiliar with; image-making, planning and printing were all pre-considered for the resolved work. In 1972, master printmaker Kenneth Tyler approached Frankenthaler with an invitation to begin printmaking in his workshop. After declining his offer the first time, Frankenthaler came to the Tyler Graphics workshop in 1976 with keen curiosity and a newfound desire to create prints. Soon after her decision to embrace the new medium, it quickly became obvious that Frankenthaler’s collaborative efforts with Tyler would manifest into an ongoing project that would transform her career.
Following Kenneth Tyler’s encouragement and initial tests with a range of techniques, Frankenthaler dived into woodcut printing with gusto. As a medium known for its stubborn and labour intensive qualities, Frankenthaler understood that her decision would be xtremely challenging. Achieving spontaneous gestural marks in woodcut printing would be a difficult departure from the techniques she could accomplish in painting. “Forcing myself onto the problems of that jigsaw, I told it what to do and it told me. It had its own limitations but there were no rules.”[i]
Her prints transcend previous assumptions about the limitations of the process and have gained extensive recognition in the wider printmaking community. Frankenthaler’s woodcuts are appreciated for defying traditional graphic qualities of the medium such as the use of bold lines and use of black. Her ability to produce a woodcut based on painterly forms and fluid washes was uncommon for the time and especially difficult to execute. Frankenthaler mixed unique colours from scratch, carved large numbers of woodblocks for singular prints and maximised the potential of the woodgrain. Thanks to the assistance of Tyler and his team, the scale and registration of her prints also stand out as exceptionally notable features. Amongst the range of prints Frankenthaler produced during her time at Tyler Graphics, one woodcut marks her initial success – Essence Mulberry.
Created in 1977, Essence Mulberry came to fruition one year after Frankenthaler decided to collaborate with Kenneth Tyler. At the time of their collaboration, a mulberry tree abundant with berries was growing outside of Tyler’s studio. He showed Frankenthaler the fruit and she was particularly drawn to the colour and transparency of their juice. She picked a selection of berries and using the juice she created a number of spontaneous drawings. One of these includes ‘K.T’s Mulberry Juice Plus!’ drawn on cream woven paper with the addition of coloured pencil. These drawings sparked a feeling of momentum and thus became the preliminary studies for Essence Mulberry. To kick-start the printmaking process, Frankenthaler and Tyler mixed a relief ink to replicate the rich red-purple colour of the mulberries. They chose to print on Japanese Gampi paper, serendipitously made from mulberry fibres. Frankenthaler was familiar with Japanese mulberry paper, thanks to her previous experience at Universal Limited Art Editions in Long Island, New York. Tyler however, was more accustomed to tailor-making his own paper to suit specific purposes.
After more than twenty trial and block proofs, the final print consists of eight colours printed from four blocks. Yellow, brown, red, blue, pink, dark blue and two transparent bases were printed onto Buff Maniai Gampi paper. The blocks used are all a different type of wood – oak veneer, birchwood, walnut, and lauan plywood – so as to achieve a range of textures and varying woodgrains. Aesthetically Essence Mulberry appears modest in composition and colour, but this deceptively simple appearance has been carefully and laboriously tweaked to ensure its elegance. Along the two vertical edges of the print, deep crimson forms a gradient to blend into a grey-tinted cornflower blue in the centre. On the left side, three painterly cobalt lines stretch from the bottom of the block to the top. A mauve line begins at the top right and continues down to the bottom to meet several smears of blue and mauve ink. Across the work there are various smears and lines that create the illusion of a gap where no ink has been printed. This illusion is created using a brown and yellow ink that looks as if it were the colour of the woodblock itself. This is enhanced as the ink is tinted only a couple of shades darker than the paper.
The large blank section at the bottom of the work is typical of finished prints in order to accommodate for a date, title, signature and edition number, all of which Frankenthaler has included except the title. In this instance the work has an unusually large blank section at the bottom, almost half the size of the actual work. This is perhaps to emphasize the portrait format and vertical composition. It could also be assumed that the extension of blank space is to highlight the beauty of the handmade paper. As Frankenthaler was aware of the Japanese origins of woodblock printing, it is likely that she consciously chose to reference the tradition. By using Japanese mulberry paper and an extended portrait format, it seems Frankenthaler is paying tribute to the heritage and aesthetics of Japanese scrolls.
Essence Mulberry is a stand-out amongst other works by Frankenthaler as it flags the beginning of a new era in her practice and her break away from painting. Solitude was especially important for Frankenthaler; painting always offered the comfort of working alone in her studio. Her abstract works relied on her ability to reflect on personal experiences, emotions and her relationship with herself. Stepping out of her comfort zone and into an environment where art required secondary input was a bold change for the artist. The intimate collaboration between Frankenthaler and Tyler is particularly notable, as Boorsch states “She is an intensely private person, an intensely private artist; in some sense making art with others goes counter to an essential part of her.”[ii]
Helen Frankenthaler’s woodcuts are an outstanding example of the potential of the medium. Her precision, use of colour and originality demonstrates her dedication and natural flair for the process. Essence Mulberry resulted in new discoveries for both Frankenthaler and Tyler, extending their knowledge and understanding of the possibilities of printmaking. Prior to their collaboration, Frankenthaler was almost exclusively known for her paintings. After Essence Mulberry, her reputation as a painter had evolved to include a wider scope of skill and expression. The print has since been featured on the cover of ARTnews[iii] and reached international recognition for its widely appreciated brilliance.
Mimi Fairall, Tyler Collection volunteer, June 2017
[i] Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in Boorsch, H., Frankenthaler – A Catalogue Raisonne, Prints 1961-1994 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p.11.
[ii] Boorsch, H., Frankenthaler – A Catalogue Raisonne, Prints 1961-1994 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996), p.11.
[iii] MOCA Jacksonville – A Cultural Institute of UNF. “Around the Mulberry Bush with Helen Frankenthaler.” Accessed May 11, 2017.