HELEN FRANKENTHALER

by Shirle Gottlieb

In homage to Murasaki Shikibu's 11th-century novel, The Tales of Genji, artist Helen Frankenthaler has created a new series of six exquisite woodcuts that project such lyrical, painterly qualities one might mistake them for her watercolors. That is precisely her intention.

Working with Kenneth Tyler (of Tyler Graphics) and Yasuyuki Shibata (a master of ukiyo-e printmaking), she has forged a new process that brings her unmistakable style, her innate sensibilities, and contemporary attitudes to the ancient medium of woodblock printing.

Frankenthaler is not the first printmaker to be inspired by the romantic wanderings of the "The Tales of Genji", but she has pushed far beyond the traditional ukiyo-e methods by incorporating layer upon layer of her hallmark translucent color into its bold, clear-cut form.

In an unprecedented process that involves many additional, painstaking steps--including the painting of six models or prototypes, one for each print in the series--a new method of woodcut printing has evolved that resonates like the stain paintings for which Frankenthaler is renowned.

First she finds the exact pieces of wood and studies their grains and textures. Then she draws, cuts, marks, and carves each one until her images emerge. After all the blocks are proofed for color and nuance, she stains and paints them.

A special hydraulic press, which purposely caused the water-based colors to bleed, squeezes the inked blocks into absorbent, handmade cotton papers that have been meticulously dyed to match the exact color of each of the woodblocks. Some of them are even textured or abraded so that they print shapes and forms without hard edges. All in all, it took nearly three years, 90 blocks of wood, and 231 colors to complete this arduous project. But the end results were well worth it.

It is hard to describe Frankenthaler's masterful prints: six abstract expressionistic impressions that allude to Genji's romantic travels through his father's kingdom. Composed of vibrant and radiant, but undefined forms --overlapped by layer upon layer of luscious, translucent color that is punc- tuated here and there by both bold and lilting calligraphic lines--the works evoke the rich poetic tapestry of Shikibu's novel.

Although the prints are merely numbered, not named, viewers can imagine lemon landscapes sparkling in the summer sun and magical nightscapes of cobalt blue and purple forests. Hints of prosperous cities rise behind rose-colored walls, and rural huts sit in rolling fields of floating green farmland.

Created by a determined, visionary artist who worked hand-in-hand with an inspired team of dedicated craftsmen headed by Yasu Shibata, Frankenthaler's Tales of Genji prove to be masterful impressions of extraordinary beauty. Each of them is a visual tone-poem that sings from the walls in the gallery.



"Tales of Genji I," woodcut,
42 x 47", Edition: 30, © Helen
Frankenthaler/Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
1998. Photo: Steven Sloman.

"Tales of Genji V," woodcut,
42 x 47", Edition: 30, © Helen
Frankenthaler/Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
1998. Photo: Steven Sloman.

"Tales of Genji II," woodcut,
42 x 47", Edition: 30, © Helen
Frankenthaler/Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
1998. Photo: Steven Sloman.

"Tales of Genji VI," woodcut,
42 x 47", Edition: 30, © Helen
Frankenthaler/Tyler Graphics Ltd.,
1998. Photo: Steven Sloman.