Rachel Cohen

12. Frankenthaler Woodcut Color

Frederick Project: Colors and Collaboration

frankenthaler savage breeze

Helen Frankenthaler, Savage Breeze, 1974, Color woodcut from eight lauan mahogany plywood blocks on buff laminated Nepalese handmade paper; artist's proof, edition of 31. Printed by Bill Goldston and Juda Rosenberg. The Art Institute of Chicago, U.L.A.E. Collection. Photos Rachel Cohen.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) worked with many kinds of material. Two springs ago, the Art Institute of Chicago held a show of her prints: Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium. I went a couple of times, and once took our daughter, for whom colors are living presences.

Frankenthaler started working seriously as a high school student, with artist Rufino Tamayo as her teacher. Tamayo, born in Oaxaca, painted in an abstract style, and was influenced by surrealism. Octavio Paz said that to say in one word what distinguished Tamayo’s work from that of his contemporaries was to say “sun.” Tamayo once told an art critic that using fewer colors increased the possibilities of those colors you used.

Frankenthaler began printing in 1961. She worked at a print workshop on Long Island called Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) that had been founded by Tatyana Grosman. Artists whom Frankenthaler was friendly with, Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers, persuaded her to try the medium out. Together with the various master printers who were her collaborators, she printed seriously for the next seventeen years.

This one we’ve been looking at is called Savage Breeze. It was hard to get, she said, the hardest print she ever worked on.

Savage Breeze was printed by Bill Goldston and Juda Rosenberg. Pulling prints is extremely technically demanding and printers play a central role. In Japanese woodblock prints, the printer was always acknowledged as a fellow creator, as were those who carved the wood blocks. Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas both worked with master printers. When I saw the Frankenthaler show, I was delighted by the little handwritten notes from her to the printers on certain draft prints, explaining the effects she was hoping for.

Color is not a given. A long process of trial and error. Savage Breeze began as Vineyard Storm.

And even once she’d moved from brown to green, the colors still didn’t look right. The wall text had a nice quotation from her:

Savage Breeze went dead like a lead balloon. So after many tries, I finally said, let’s scratch it. I was almost exasperated. I couldn’t get the light I desired. I knew the drawing was right. I knew the scale was right. Then I thought—why don’t we whitewash the paper first and then print the other colors I’d mixed over it. We did. And it glowed.

But the composition, the areas of color, still didn’t work. They tried a darker burgundy block over the green, but Frankenthaler didn’t like the result. In some places, she told them to cut back the burgundy block, and made crayon marks to show where. The cut away areas showed white in the final prints. In another spot, she attached a little green square of paper to show how she wanted it to look – color as edit.

Here in Chicago, the day began with a thick fog and still there seems a layer of gray cotton over the trees and houses. We are waiting, so intently, for spring. Wash, pare, wait, pull the sheets again.

For Tara, sheltering on the Vineyard

Second in a Series

Second in a Series

The Bath, Mary Cassatt, Fogg Museum



The Bath is a print, or a series of prints, made by Mary Cassatt in 1891 – at the height of her powers and at a moment when her interest in Japanese prints opened a wonderful set of visual ideas in her mind.

Her powers were considerable.  When Pissarro visited her studio in April of that year he wrote of her work to his son Lucien (the two Pissarros had been experimenting with prints themselves.)

You remember the effects you strove for at Eragny?  Well, Miss Cassatt has realized just such effects, and admirably: the tone even, subtle, delicate, without stains on seams: adorable blues, fresh rose, etc…. the result is admirable, as beautiful as Japanese work, and it’s done with printer’s ink! [Letters to Lucien, p158]  

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Many of Cassatt’s prints are now regarded as technical masterpieces.  She pulled sheets herself in her studio, and also had the help of an extremely talented printer, Modeste Leroy, whom she took the unusual step of crediting, as is the Japanese tradition.  The prints are marked Imprimée par l’artiste et M. Leroy / Mary Cassatt.  

At the Fogg Museum right now, one may see a sequence of nine versions of The Bath, the first print in a set of twenty-five.  Cassatt worked on The Bath in a great many stages because, as she said, “I was entirely ignorant of the method when I began.” [Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, p45]  The whole series originally had the subtitle “an attempt at imitating Japanese printing,” although she later dropped this description.

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Cassatt had studied Japanese prints for twenty years, and owned many of them by the time she undertook the series; her interest in Japanese style had been given new point by an important exhibition of Japanese works that took place at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890.  In a well-known letter to Berthe Morisot, Cassatt exhorted her to see the exhibition:

… you could come and dine here with us and afterwards we could go to see the Japanese prints at the Beaux-Arts.  Seriously, you must not miss that.  You who want to make color prints you couldn’t dream of anything more beautiful.  I dream of it and don’t think of anything else but color on copper.  [letter from Cassatt to Morisot, quoted p36 of Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints.]

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The Japanese influence on The Bath is evident right away.  You can see it in the particular shade of blue that makes the basin of water a significant equal weight in the picture, in balance with the mother and the child; it is in the pattern on the yellow dress that has gone from being penciled in to being part of the plate; and it is in the outlined figures that seem almost cut out and then laid over the background.

Cassatt’s color prints are stylized and also about style.  Here style is not ornament.  The hallmark of these prints may be their tenderness, but here style is paring down and juxtaposing in order to achieve a kind of force.

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