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Helen Frankenthaler Prints: The Romance of a New Medium

One of the most significant figures in the development of American abstraction, Helen Frankenthaler (American, 1928–2011) i is best known for her monumental and boldly gestural canvases awash in vibrant hues. Lesser known are the prints that the artist produced at the print workshop Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) over nearly two decades—images that, while decidedly smaller, capture the same whimsical beauty found in her brilliant canvases. Featuring over 50 prints from Frankenthaler’s time at ULAE, this exhibition reveals an artist enchanted with what she called “the romance of a new medium.”

Born in New York City, Frankenthaler received her earliest art instruction from the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo while a student at the Dalton School in New York and studied with the influential artist and teacher Paul Feeley at Bennington College in Vermont. After graduating in 1949, she returned to New York, where her paintings caught the attention of the famous art critic Clement Greenberg, who championed her originality. In the early 1950s, Frankenthaler developed her signature “soak stain” technique by thinning her paints with turpentine or kerosene to facilitate absorption into the canvas. The resulting images, with their translucency, bridge Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting, at once full of the energy of making and the beauty of color.

It wasn’t until 1961 that Tatyana Grosman, with the assistance of the artists Grace Hartigan and Larry Rivers, lured a hesitant Frankenthaler to ULAE, Grosman’s newly formed print workshop on Long Island. Having never made prints before, Frankenthaler feared her spontaneity and large-scale approach to painting would not translate to the more modestly sized stones used in lithography. However, her introductory experience working with master printer Robert Blackburn on her first print, called simply First Stone, vanquished those fears, and a full-fledged printmaker was born. Over the next 17 years, Frankenthaler embraced lithography, etching, aquatint, and woodcut, producing over 30 editioned prints that are rich with vitality and evidence Frankenthaler’s obsession with redefining the medium.

This exhibition presents the Art Institute’s nearly comprehensive catalogue of Frankenthaler’s ULAE production together with loans from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. Included are never-before-displayed proofs that illustrate the artist’s working method, explore the evolution of an image from initial idea to final published edition, and demonstrate Frankenthaler’s unwavering passion for printmaking.


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