June 12, 2019

“Helen Frankenthaler Prints” at PU Museum

“FIRST STONE”: This color lithograph by Helen Frankenthaler is featured in “Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity,” on view June 29 through October 20 at the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibit will feature more than 50 prints by the artist, spanning five decades and more than a dozen printmaking processes, including lithography, woodcut, etching, and engraving.

One of the most influential artists to emerge from the mid-20th century, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) may be best known for her innovative abstract paintings in which she poured washes of color over great expanses of raw canvas. She was also the most prolific printmaker of her generation. Frankenthaler’s print works are remarkable for the diversity of techniques she employed, the number of studios with which she collaborated, and the ways in which her engagement with printmaking could parallel — simultaneously independent and in sync with — her practice as a painter.

More than 50 prints by the artist, spanning five decades and more than a dozen printmaking processes, including lithography, woodcut, etching, and engraving, will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum June 29 through October 20. “Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity” examines the continuous and generative role of printmaking throughout Frankenthaler’s career, while also tracing the ascendance of American printmaking in the latter half of the 20th century.

The exhibition will highlight a selection of prints, in a variety of media, which were donated to the Princeton University Art Museum by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation last year as part of the Frankenthaler Prints Initiative for university-affiliated museums. The gift’s 10 prints and five working proofs are joined by important loans of additional prints from the Frankenthaler Foundation, from public and private collections, and selections from the Museum’s rich holdings in prints. The exhibition will also feature historical works by an array of artists whose printmaking inspired Frankenthaler’s creative choices, including Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), Utagawa Hiroshige I (Japanese, 1797-1858), and Rufino Tamayo (Mexican, 1899-1991).

“Helen Frankenthaler’s achievement and legacy as a visionary practitioner and a legendary mentor for so many cannot be overstated,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “The generosity of the Frankenthaler Foundation is acting as a catalyst for us to consider more fully the artist’s achievements in print, a medium uniquely suited to her vision.”

“Helen Frankenthaler Prints: Seven Types of Ambiguity” is organized in seven loosely chronological sections that each profiles a distinct approach to her work in printmaking. The subtitle of the exhibition is taken from literary critic William Empson’s 1930 essay Seven Types of Ambiguity, which articulated ways in which the formal structures of language could convey a multiplicity of meanings in poetry. For the postwar generation of American artists, writers, and critics, Empson’s essay was not only the foundational work for the literary theory known as New Criticism, it also had a profound and lasting impact on abstract artists. In 1957 Frankenthaler borrowed the title of the essay for her large-scale stain-painting Seven Types of Ambiguity, which will open the exhibition, making clear her own affinity for Empson’s approach. Variously focusing on Frankenthaler’s compositional language, working process, historical referents, and collaborations with particular printmaking studios, the exhibition embraces the central principle of Empson’s book: that close reading, like close looking, can yield deep relationships with an abstract composition.

The exhibition begins with Frankenthaler’s first color lithograph, printed in 1961, followed by a series of works in a variety of techniques that include screenprint, etching, aquatint, and lithography that balance layers of linear gestures with fields of color. Subsequent sections explore the artist’s creative process, her expressive use of black ink, one-of-a-kind monotypes created in San Francisco and New York, and mixografia relief prints. The exhibition culminates with examples of her distinctive color woodcuts, printed in water-soluble inks by the master craftsman Yasuyuki Shibata in traditional Japanese ukiyo-e manner and created in partnership with Ken Tyler at Tyler Graphics.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.artmuseum.princeton.edu.