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]  

rcohen 144


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.

rcohen 144



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.]

rcohen 144


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.

rcohen 144




First in a Series

First in a Series

“The Bath,” 1891. State: xvii/xvii: color print with drypoint, softground and aquatint.



On a fleeting visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art late last December – five women of three generations, including the baby and her much-admired five-year-old cousin L. – I caught a first glimpse of something that seemed suddenly very interesting, or rather it was as if I had already for a while been interested and had come upon the occasion when a dim returning attraction becomes a definite line to pursue.

We were a small cloud of Brownian motion bounding and rebounding in that museum’s great atrium, recently-completed, and its great white rooms – it was almost by accident that we found ourselves in a small exhibition of Mary Cassatt’s prints. On one side of a hallway a room with works on paper having to do with life in Paris – something of Degas, something of Toulouse-Lautrec. And on the other side of the hallway the room of Cassatt prints. Their fine yellow, slightly Japanese in tone, women seated, stillness, design.  In the different impressions, deliberation. I didn’t have time to look comparatively, and envied the men and women spending a careful hour in that room.

Last weekend, at the Raven bookstore, a find: Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, by Mathews and Shapiro, for an exhibition in Boston, DC, and Williamstown, 1989-1990.  And last night, reading late, found the thought I might have had, or begun to have, that dark December day.

In 1879, at the invitation of Degas, Cassatt began exhibiting with the Impressionists.  Later that fall, she made a trip to the Alps – I imagine one of those trips during which vision is clarified and from which one returns full of the energy to redouble one’s efforts. She found that Degas, Pissarro and Bracquemond had the idea for a new print journal, La jour et la nuit. She joined in.  “At the moment,” Degas wrote to Bracquemond of the project, “Mlle Cassatt is full of it.”  

At the Impressionist exhibition the following spring, Degas, Cassatt and Pissarro showed etchings they had been doing over the winter.  Interestingly, they showed early “preliminary” states as well. [The states of an etching are prints made at different stages from the same plate, often there are considerable changes both because the artist may draw and scrape out aspects of the design, and because the plate itself changes and wears in the process of being printed.]

The Impressionists were unusual in valuing preliminary unfinished states, and this bears an important relation to their understanding and depiction of time.  As Shapiro and Mathews point out: “States thus must be seen as a larger work of art; in a sense they form a “series” as in other Impressionist groups of related works.”  Cassatt, they continue, “keeps reworking the plate and redefining the lights and darks in endless variation as if to capture the changing light of the actual scene.”